The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) revived Oracle’s lawsuit against Google, arguing that Oracle was in the right all along and that Google must pay for infringing on Oracle’s copyrights. The case was sent to a California federal court to determine how much Google needs to pay to Oracle.
How It All Started
Back in 2005, Sun Microsystems, which was later purchased by Oracle, was licensing the Java programming language to 700 million PCs and the Java SE platform for mobile devices. In the same year, Google acquired Android and started discussions with Sun about a license so it could customize a Java platform for Android.
The two parties didn’t reach an agreement because, according to Oracle, Google wanted to use the Java APIs for free while also planning to break backwards compatibility with Oracle’s mobile platform. Oracle also claimed in the previous lawsuits that Android eventually devastated its platform’s chances in the mobile market. The smartphone makers would no longer license Java SE, preferring the open source and free Android OS instead.
Oracle vs Google
In 2010, Oracle sued Google and accused the company of patent and copyright infringement. The case was assigned to Judge William Alsup, who split the case into three stages: patents, copyright, and damages.
In 2012, the jury found that Google didn’t infringe on either of the patents that Oracle mentioned. However, the jury found that Google infringed on small parts of Oracle’s API, such as using the nine-line rangeCheck function or copying Oracle’s API organizational structure, but couldn’t decide whether or not it was fair use.
Judge Alsup declared that the jury’s verdict of copyright infringement was “overblown,” considering how small and technically insignificant the violation was. Alsup also said that:
So long as the specific code used to implement a method is different, anyone is free under the Copyright Act to write his or her own code to carry out exactly the same function or specification of any methods used in the Java API. It does not matter that the declaration or method header lines are identical.
In 2013, Oracle appealed to the CAFC and Google filed a cross-appeal on the literal copying claim. The CAFC didn’t agree with Alsup’s ruling and overturned it. The CAFC believes that Oracle’s API organizational structure was a creative work of its programmers, and therefore anyone who copies it (such as when using it in their programs, along with the Java language) is infringing on Oracle’s copyright. The case was then sent to the district court to rule whether or not Google’s copying of the API was fair use.
In 2014, Google petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case, but the Supreme Court refused until the fair use issue could be determined.
In 2016, another jury determined that Google’s use of Oracle’s APIs was fair use, and because of that Google didn’t infringe on Oracle’s copyright.
Oracle then appealed for the second time at the CAFC, and now we’re seeing the results of that appeal, with the CAFC siding once again with Oracle. In its ruling, the CAFC said that “the fact that Android is free of charge does not make Google’s use of the Java API packages noncommercial".
The Oracle vs Google lawsuit has been one of the most watched in the tech industry, because if it’s finally settled that APIs can be copyrighted, then it could affect the entire industry. Much of the software that is used today is built using old APIs from other companies. Even Oracle may be infringing on some of IBM’s APIs from the old days of the personal computer, and Linux could also be at risk due to its use of POSIX APIs.
Some argue that the CAFC has simply misunderstood what APIs are, and that APIs are more like recipe for how software should function rather than actual software. Recipes can’t be copyright and for similar reasons judge Alsup argued before that APIs can’t be copyrighted either. Additionally, the CAFC was never even supposed to hear this case, because it typically doesn't cover copyright cases, but only patent cases. However, because Oracle sued Google over both patent and copyright infringement, the case ended-up at the CAFC.
The Supreme Court may yet hear the case, now that the patent, copyright, and fair use issues have been ruled upon by the lower courts. The Supreme Court has a track record of overturning CAFC’s patent cases, so as long as the case can reach the Supreme Court again, this issue may be yet to be closed.