[Update 2: Supreme Court will hear] Oracle’s lawsuit over Google’s use of Java in Android has been revived
The Google-Oracle feud has been ongoing since 2010. Java was created by Sun Microsystems back in the 1990s and Oracle acquired the company in 2010. A few months later, Oracle accused Google of using its copyrighted APIs and patents to develop Android and filed a lawsuit. Since then, we have seen the two companies wage a protracted legal battle in US courts.
In 2012, Google won a victory as a jury determined that Google did not owe anything to Oracle. But Oracle appealed the decision using the appeals process in the US. In 2016, the jury agreed that Google’s use of the APIs was considered fair use, and the company should not be penalized for how the APIs were implemented in Android. The last time we covered the lawsuit was back in October 2016, when Oracle filed an appeal to the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.
Now, in a new twist (via Bloomberg), the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has ruled that Google’s use of Java APIs to develop Android “went too far” and was “a violation of Oracle’s copyrights”. Therefore, Google could owe Oracle billions of dollars.
The case was remanded to a federal court in California to determine how much Google should pay. Oracle had been seeking $8.8 billion, but it could choose to seek a higher number. In response, Google expressed its disappointment and said that the company was considering its next steps in the case.
The crux of the case is based on APIs (application programming interfaces), that is a set of routines, protocols, and tools for building software applications. APIs are useful as developers don’t have to write new code from scratch to implement every new function or change the code for every new type of device. The question in the case is can Google’s use of Oracle-owned Java APIs in Android be considered as fair use?
Oracle’s viewpoint is that its APIs are freely available to those who want to build applications for computers and mobile devices, but the company does not allow anyone who wants to use them for a competing platform or to embed them in an electronic device.
The three-judge federal circuit panel ruled: “The fact that Android is free of charge does not make Google’s use of the Java API packages noncommercial.” It noted that Android has generated more than $42 billion in revenue from advertising and also said that Google had not made any alteration of the copyrighted material.
Oracle also states that Google did not pay royalties for Oracle’s copyrighted Java technology because it faced “an existential threat” by not having its search optimized for mobile devices. Google, therefore, was in a rush in the mid-2000s. On the other hand, Google’s viewpoint is that Oracle is jealous because of Android’s huge success. The company states that it has used “a minuscule percentage” of Oracle’s code to make it only possible for programmers to write apps for Android in Java.
The appeals court ruled that Google’s use of the APIs was not considered as fair use. “There is nothing fair about taking a copyrighted work verbatim and using it for the same purpose and function as the original in a competing platform,” it stated.
Now, Google is said to be either likely to ask the three-judge panel to reconsider its decision or to have the issue go before all active judges on the court. The case could even go all the way to the apex court of the US.
Finally, Google’s defense included the idea that Java was developed for desktops, while Android is created for mobile devices. Oracle has tried to extend the case to desktops, but the judge stated he wants to keep the case “narrowly focused.”
Our view (from 3/27): The case can have far-reaching implications on software development and the technology industry in general. It would be naive to believe that either Oracle or Google have stronger arguments. Instead, attention should be given to the superficial nature of patent wars and how these legal battles have stifled innovation in the past few decades. Innovation that has the potential to benefit consumers ends up being thrown away thanks to the application of patent law not for protecting innovation, but for creating barriers to competition.
Update 1: Google will appeal
We are disappointed that the Federal Circuit overturned the jury finding that Java is open and free for everyone. We will appeal to the Supreme Court to defend this principle against companies like Oracle, whose restrictive practices threaten to stifle the work of new generations of tech developers.
Update 2: Supreme Court will hear
The US Supreme Court confirmed today that it will take up the Oracle/Google copyright lawsuit. Google said it would take the case to the Supreme Court back in August of 2018. No date has been set yet for the trial. Google’s senior vice president of global affairs, Kent Walker, had this to say:
“We welcome the Supreme Court’s decision to review the case and we hope that the Court reaffirms the importance of software interoperability in American competitiveness. Developers should be able to create applications across platforms and not be locked into one company’s software.”
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