Google's victory over Oracle: A win for developers

The ruling sets a high bar for the level of "creativity" that APIs may need to show before they deserve protection under copyright law.

When the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2014 that Java APIs deserved copyright protection, siding with Oracle over Google in the matter, it shocked many in the developer community and the tech industry at large. Some said that the ruling would have a "chilling effect" on software development, but that prediction didn't really materialize.

Thursday's verdict in the second round of Oracle's case against Google -- this time coming down in Google's favor -- may explain why.

"A lot of concern was raised, but the market and developers were waiting for the other shoe to fall," said Uri Sarid, CTO of MuleSoft, a firm that helps build APIs.

"If you look at it narrowly, [the case] is just about Java and Android, but if you look at it as a precedent of using APIs, that affects the global economy... The ruling today basically said, yes, it is fair use to go ahead and have a completely different software system. That, I think, is a victory, and we're definitely very happy about that."

Oracle first sued Google in 2010 for using 37 Java API packages -- without paying licensing fees -- to develop the Android mobile operating system. After the Federal Circuit's 2014 ruling, Google argued that it could use the APIs for free thanks the to concept of "fair use."

Judge William Alsup of the U.S. District Court in San Francisco explained fair use to the jury this way: "The policy behind the right of fair use is to encourage and allow the development of new ideas that build on earlier ones, thus providing a counterbalance to the copyright policy to protect creative works."

Part of Google's winning argument was that APIs serve more of a functional purpose, rather than a creative one. The Federal Circuit has already established that APIs show a degree of creativity meriting copyright protection -- but Thursday's ruling set a very high bar for the level of creativity needed to exempt APIs from fair use, said IDC analyst Al Hilwa.

Clearly, "Oracle and others with strong, widely adopted platforms like Java have a higher bar," he said. "It seems natural that the design of complex APIs involves creativity; however, the court has decided that this creativity bar is not reached by this relatively complex set of Java APIs."

All that said, Thursday's ruling doesn't actually set any real legal precedent. Every "fair use" claim is evaluated on a case-by-case basis. And while Google's victory may seem to set a high bar for the level of "creativity" that APIs must show to merit legal protection, the jury simply answered a yes-or-no question.

"That doesn't give much guidance about the bounds of fair use, but a ruling by Judge Alsup on Oracle and Google's post-trial motions might give more clarity," said Mitch Stoltz, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Even so, Sarid said he's optimistic the case will serve as guidance in future legal battles, and that it will encourage the standardization of APIs.

"This would be an example where interoperability of this type constitutes fair use, so other companies would feel encouraged to have common APIs," he said. "The way you talk to programs should be very standard, very easy, very generic."

Meanwhile, Oracle is, of course, planning to appeal the ruling.

"We strongly believe that Google developed Android by illegally copying core Java technology to rush into the mobile device market," Oracle general counsel Dorian Daley said in a statement. "Oracle brought this lawsuit to put a stop to Google's illegal behavior. We believe there are numerous grounds for appeal and we plan to bring this case back to the Federal Circuit on appeal."

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