Oracle Wins Major Victory Against Google In API Copyright Case

Oracle won a major victory against Google today when the Supreme Court decided not to hear Google's appeal on the Java APIs case that has been going on between the two companies since 2010. It started when Oracle sued Google and accused it of infringing on some of its application programming interfaces, including their names (such as the name "max" for the maximum function). With today's decision, the Supreme Court let stand an appeals court ruling (PDF), which said that Google infringed on Oracle's APIs.

The ruling could affect the entire software industry. Copyright terms go back for many decades, which means virtually all application programming interfaces that were implemented without money changing hands, or at least permission being granted, could now be vulnerable to lawsuits.

Oracle itself could be negatively impacted by today's decision if the company used software APIs without permission. Microsoft, which took Oracle's side in the lawsuit, could also have its "Project Islandwood" and "Project Astoria" stopped dead in their tracks before they even get a chance to take off. When the company repurposes iOS and Android APIs to run on Windows 10, it may be infringing on Apple's and Google's copyrights.

When the case first reached the Supreme Court, the court asked the White House to state its opinion on the issue. The White House said it should not get involved in this case and instead let Google attempt to prove that Oracle's Java APIs used in Android are covered by fair use. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) ruled in 2014 that APIs can be copyrighted, but there was still the issue of whether the specific APIs in this case were protected by fair use. The appeals court then sent the case back to a lower court.

Therefore, although the CAFC decided that APIs are copyrighted, Google's and Oracle's case could reach the Supreme Court again. If either Google or Oracle is unhappy with the ruling from the lower court, which will decide on the fair use issue, they could continue to appeal the ruling until the Supreme Court rejects the case again, or decides to finally rule on it.

If Google wins, it won't have to pay up to $1 billion in damages to Oracle. However, it remains to be seen how much protection the fair use doctrine will offer to most open software APIs. If most open APIs aren't covered by fair use, then the biggest damage could have already been done to the software industry.

Google has already made the case that interoperability between software is important for innovation and competition. Developers can build on each others' work without having to reinvent everything from scratch again. Oracle has argued the opposite, stating that the copyrighting of APIs is what will enable more innovation in the software industry.

There's still a chance for the ruling to be overturned by the 9th Circuit Court if the case reaches that level, but it seems rather slim right now.

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Lucian Armasu
Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware US. He covers software news and the issues surrounding privacy and security.
  • jdog2pt0
    That second to last paragraph "Google has already..." really gets to me. Oracle's comment absolutely sounds like something they'd say, and speaks volumes about the company as a whole. Google isn't perfect by any means, but they're right, they are definitely right.
  • falchard
    O.O thats rare to see, a proper interpretation of copyright law. That being copyright granted by the Executive branch. So the judicial branch asked the executive branch on how it should proceed in this case of copyright.
    I am typically anti-patent/copyright. In software we always work by interpolation. Hurry someone write binary for a line reader when you need to make a video game... GO. Also most software engineers learn coding standards. So using a standard naming convention that Oracle developed and instructed software engineers to use should be of no surprise.
    At the base Google used code supplied by another company under GNU, offered their software for free under the terms of use; and made money from the marketplace. Oracle sees that as a way to skirt the effort they put into Java. So something tells me this won't impact Microsoft since they understand the importance of licensing fees.
    However, the big issue here is copyrights. If copyrights on software span several decades, it could mean IBM can sue the crap out of everyone for using functions they developed in the '70s. To me the original interpretation on copyright laws is a limit of 7 years. For patents they must be made public, be a benefit for the pursuit of science or engineering, already have a working prototype, and signed by the Secretary of State for a period of 7 years. I think we have gone way past that in a bad bad way.
  • Karadjgne
    Well if copywrites really go back decades, Microsoft will be in a heap of trouble when Apple sues them over stealing 'Windows'
  • Solandri
    This seems pretty simple. Unlike patents, copyrights last a lifetime + 70 years. So if Oracle wins, find the guys who wrote C and C++, and have them sue Oracle for a bajillion dollars for violating their copyright on the C and C++ language "API".
  • pwnish3r
    I can't help but think that the old farts on the supreme court denied to hear the case simply because they are intimidated by computers, especially something so complex that has spanned over decades like programming copyright infringement. These people need aids to send their email, or I wouldn't even doubt it if they just refuse to use email.

    The amount of research that would be required for this case would be astronomical, which, by the way, is their job, one that comes with a great deal of respect and responsibility.

    Maybe I'm misunderstanding, but they are suing because Google because they built libraries that preform similar functions as those provided by Sun, which is now Oracle's property? And they named them similarly? (Calling a maximum function, to use the example given by the article, max is copyright infringement?)

    This case has major implications, and to ignore the appeal to this idiotic decision is just plain stupid.

    Someone prove me wrong.
  • jasonelmore
    Well if copywrites really go back decades, Microsoft will be in a heap of trouble when Apple sues them over stealing 'Windows'

    they didn't steal it. IIRC gates tried to sell it to steve jobs, and jobs said no thanks, and gates bought another company with some tech patents he needed, and ran with it.
  • cats_Paw
    Max for maximum function is copyright infringement? Oh, right, Murica!

    Of course trying to guess who is right and wrong here without knowing all facts is a bit pointless, but there are two things to consider:

    1) There lawsuits are becoming way too common
    2) The government will benefit if Oracle wins, since Oracle will have to pay income tax from the money they earn (since you cant demonstrate on paper your projected losses due to copyright infringement to the tax office as a cost, you can only do that in court vs a private corporation), but if google would win the lawsuit, and no money changed hands, there is no extra tax paid.
  • Achoo22
    Software patents are just WRONG. Software should be subject to copyright law and not patent law, period. It's a slippery slope, and soon we're going to have Intel claiming that anything running on a PC is derivative of their CPU patent.
  • back_by_demand
    Well if copywrites really go back decades, Microsoft will be in a heap of trouble when Apple sues them over stealing 'Windows'
    Good luck with that, Xerox will sue Apple
  • ipwitan
    They don't. The statute of limitations for copyright is 3 years from infringement. Thus, almost all such statements about a future of world of rampant copyright litigation about old standards is not possible. The SC can still rule on this matter AFTER there is a the trial on infringement and all appeals made. The SC simply didn't want to issue a blanket statement that there could be no copyright in an API. That position is not unreasonable. And it certainly does not say that what happened here is infringement. The SC generally does not like to interject an opinion for 1/2 a case. They like the entire matter wrapped up with a pretty bow at the end of the process.

    For what it is worth, it is very difficult to prove copyright infringement in software absent direct copying, which usually occurs intentionally and as a result of counterfeiting/pirating and theft. Remember, for copyright infringement, independent creation is a legitimate defense not available under patent law. Copyright and software is not your problem. Software patents on the other hand...