Why Oracle vs. Google API Litigation Remains a Pivotal Case

NEWS ANALYSIS: Android's non-interoperability with mainstream Java is the focal point for Oracle's litigation. But should all APIs be open?

The Supreme Court of the United States, fresh off rendering historic decisions on nationalized health care and same-sex marriage, indicated June 29 that it isn't going to decide the legal definitions of "creative" and "utilitarian" in software development.

The court declined to hear Oracle vs. Google, effectively sending the five-year-old case back to a district court. Google will argue that it made fair use of Oracle's Java application programming interfaces (APIs) in the open-source Android operating system and did not break copyright laws.

A legal determination about what can and cannot be protected by copyright in software development is very important to the business of IT. The outcome of this case, even though it is specifically about Java APIs, has long-term repercussions—not just for Google, but the entire software industry. This is because all APIs act as a common language among developers to enable faster, more efficient development.

APIs are specifications that allow applications to communicate with each other. For example, when someone types into a document, and then hits the print command, an API is being used that enables the word processor to talk to the printer driver, even though all the software was written by different people.

Innovation the Goal for Both Sides

Both companies claim they are fighting on the side of innovation.

Oracle's brief statement was attributed to General Counsel Dorian Daley: "Today's Supreme Court decision is a win for innovation and for the technology industry that relies on copyright protection to fuel innovation."

A Google spokesperson said: "We will continue to defend the interoperability that has fostered innovation and competition in the software industry."

The major argument until June 29 was whether APIs—in Java or in any other programming language—are considered either software tools or techniques in creating software. A technique cannot be copyrighted. Since the highest court possible (a federal appellate court in May 2014) has ruled that the Java APIs are indeed copyrightable, that important part of the case has been decided.

What will be left to a future court to decide was whether Google demonstrated fair use of the APIs that have now been determined to belong to Oracle's intellectual property bank.

Fair use in the context of commercial software is a high bar to reach, but Google appears confident that it can defend its position. At a high level, a fair use is any copying of copyrighted material done for a limited and "transformative" purpose, such as to comment upon, criticize or parody a copyrighted work.

Oracle: Java APIs Used for Commercial Purposes Only

Oracle is clear in its belief that the Java APIs were used for commercial purposes in the development of Android, and that there was no fair use of those descriptions involved.

Google did not take out a standard open-source Java Public License for Java that would have enabled all its iterations to be contributed back to the Java open-source community. When Google forked Java to work in Android, it disconnected Android from the Java open-source community and made Android inoperable with standard Java, Oracle said.

It is this lack of Android's interoperability with mainstream Java that is the focal point for Oracle's litigation. Oh yes, and one can bet there is going to be some compensation also demanded by Oracle.

"I'm not sure whether or not we got a license to anything," Google CEO Larry Page told presiding Judge William Alsup and a 12-person jury at a Northern California district court hearing in 2012. "We only used elements of the Java programming language that are freely available in the public domain.

"When we weren't able to reach terms on a partnership [with Oracle], we went down our own path."

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 13 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...