Java APIs Copyrightable, Court Rules in Oracle vs. Google

Two years ago its case seemed dead in the water, but Oracle now can pursue its high-profile copyright suit against Google over Android's use of Java.

A major intellectual property lawsuit involving IT giants Oracle and Google is in the process of determining the legal definitions of "creative" and "utilitarian" in software development.

A three-judge U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., on May 9 overturned a 2012 circuit court decision, ruling that Oracle is entitled to copyright protection over application programming interfaces in the Java programming language that are vital components in the open-source Android operating system.

As a result, Oracle now can pursue its high-profile copyright suit against Google over Android's use of Java.

The Google-developed Android is the world's most widely used mobile device operating system, powering more than 45 percent of the world's smartphones. Android is built largely upon Java, which was developed by Sun Microsystems in the early 1990s and is now property of Oracle, which acquired Sun in 2010.

Litigation Is All About Fair Use of APIs

When Oracle filed the original suit in August 2010, it claimed that Google illegally used seven Java APIs that Oracle owns to help build the Android OS. Google contends that the APIs it uses cannot be copyrighted because doing so would be similar to copyrighting a technique used to perform a task. Legally, techniques are not considered intellectual property.

Oracle had claimed in the lawsuit that the "specifications and implementations of the APIs are not a method of operation or system."

The result of this lawsuit will become a landmark in the history of software development intellectual property.

The table for the May 9 decision was set on Dec. 4, 2013, when Judge S. Jay Plager of the D.C.-based Federal Court of Appeals opined in a hearing that the Java APIs could be considered software tools, not simply techniques to build software, which legally cannot be copyrighted.

Circuit Court Had Ruled APIs Were Not Copyrightable

San Francisco-based U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup had ruled in 2012 that the APIs are not covered by copyright law because they are a "functional requirement for writing compatible applications, not creative works." As a result, Oracle's case seemed dead in the water—until now.

The appeals court on May 9 made a clear distinction between the Java programming language (i.e., the commands/keywords that are free for everyone to use) and the APIs, and found that only three of the Java APIs in question are basically part of the Java language. However, "Google could have written its own API packages using the Java languages," which, as the opinion cited, "Google chose not to do."

Oracle's public response, as one might imagine, was immediate.

"We are extremely pleased that the Federal Circuit denied Google's attempt to drastically limit copyright protection for computer code," Oracle General Counsel Dorian Daley said in an email to eWEEK. "The Federal Circuit's opinion is a win for Oracle and the entire software industry that relies on copyright protection to fuel innovation and ensure that developers are rewarded for their breakthroughs.

"We are confident that the district court will appropriately apply the fair-use doctrine on remand, which is not intended to protect naked commercial exploitation of copyrighted material," he said.

This is a significant case relevant to all IT intellectual property. Oracle vs. Google could well become a textbook case affecting the future of software development. Complicating the matter is the fact that the Java programming language itself—and not all its accompanying tools—is open source and free to the public to use.

'All Code Has Functional Purpose'

"It seems to me that almost all computer code has to have a functional purpose; otherwise what's the purpose," Judge Plager said at the Dec. 4 hearing. "You don't write computer code because it has some pretty, expressive phrasing. You write it because it has a function."

The May 9 decision backed Judge Plager's opinion.

Oracle inherited the copyrights for Java when it acquired Sun Microsystems for $7.4 billion in January 2010.

Ball Now in Google's Court

Google's attorneys will face a stiff challenge to rebound from the May 9 ruling, based on this language from the federal court ruling:

"Oracle asserts that all of the trial court's conclusions regarding copyrightability are erroneous. Oracle argues that its Java API packages are entitled to protection under the Copyright Act because they are expressive and could have been written and organized in any number of ways to achieve the same functions. Specifically, Oracle argues that the district court erred when it: (1) concluded that each line of declaring code is uncopyrightable because the idea and expression have merged; (2) found the declaring code uncopyrightable because it employs short phrases; (3) found all aspects of the SSO devoid of protection as a 'method of operation' under 17 U.S.C. § 102(b); and (4) invoked Google's 'interoperability' concerns in the copyrightability analysis.

"We agree with Oracle on each point," the court decision said.

Google did not respond immediately to a request for comment, but the huge Web services company has stated several times during the lawsuit that it sees Java APIs as strictly utilitarian tools, and that no matter how "creative and useful the Java API may be, it is fundamentally a functional, utilitarian work" designed for the "practical convenience of programmers."

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 15 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...