The Federal Circuit recently resurrected one of the most closely watched cases in recent software history: Oracle v. Google. The case between Oracle and Google is incredibly complicated, involving multiple trials, appellate decisions and a court that usually only rules on patent cases.
However, the saga of Oracle and Google is also an incredibly important case for copyright law, computer programming, and technological advancements in general.
I will do my best in this installment to explain what seems like a never-ending battle!
Oracle originally sued Google, claiming copyright infringement. The company alleged that Google infringed on its “Java APIs.” APIs is essentially a computer programing language that allows programs to speak to each other.
When Google developed its Android system, it used the same language for its program as the Java program. It’s like if Game of Thrones used Star Trek’s Klingon language for the Dothraki. It is a fact that Oracle developed the language and Google used it. But the question the courts have wrestled with since Oracle filed the case is this: is Java API copyrightable?
You may also be interested in, “Intellectual Property and the U.S. Constitution.”
Back in May 2012, the Northern District of California ruled APIs were not subject to copyright. The reasoning? According to the ruling, to hold otherwise would allow Oracle to tie up a “utilitarian and functional set of symbols” that drive creativity. Thus, the saga of Oracle and Google rumbled forward.
Essentially, the Judge ruled Java API was more like the English or French language, rather than Klingon.
Oracle then appealed to the Federal Circuit (the special court that handles patent appeals) which found that Java APIs were copyrightable. Long Live Spock!
But the saga of Oracle and Google does not end there.
The Federal Circuit did, however, leave open the possibility that Google’s API use was fair use. Obviously, Google then was the next to appeal, asking the Supreme Court to take up the case. In 2015, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
Based on the Federal Circuit decision, the case traveled back down to the Northern District of California for Google’s fair use trial. In copyright infringement, a defendant may claim “fair use”. Fair use means that their use of the copyrighted material should be allowed under the law for purposes like education or news reporting.
After the 2016 trial, a jury found that Google’s use of the Java API was, in fact, fair use. They were absolved from the infringement allegations, and in the least surprising move yet, Oracle appealed!
Fair use means that their use of the copyrighted material should be allowed under the law for purposes like education or news reporting.
The case went back up to the Federal Circuit and the saga of Oracle and Google continued. There, on March 27, 2018, the Federal Circuit ruled that Google’s use of the Java API was not fair use!
The Federal Circuit sent the case back down to the Northern District of California to determine damages.
So, after the Federal Circuit’s second ruling in this case, Oracle has now scored two major wins. First, by convincing the Federal Circuit that the Java API is more Klingon than English, and second, that Google’s use of Java API was not fair use.
You may also be interested in, “Anatomy of a Trial.”
Oracle’s wins have caused quite a commotion, primarily because computer development thrives on building from past programs. Taking away essential building blocks won’t build a stronger house.
It also caused a commotion because it was decided by the Federal Circuit, which is a court created to hear patent appeals, not copyright appeals. Usually, copyright appeals are handled through the normal circuit court of appeals system, in this case, the Ninth Circuit. However, because of the original patent claim that was disposed of, the case remained within the purview of the Federal Circuit.
Taking away essential building blocks won’t build a stronger house.
The next chapter in our saga of Oracle and Google is a trial on damages in the Northern District of California, or another petition to the Supreme Court. Google has said it is still weighing its options for appeal. Regardless of Google’s decision, the Federal Circuit, rather than Oracle or Google, appears to be the star in this ongoing drama.
Meghan Nugent is an associate with SpencePC. She has extensive experience assisting clients in both transactional and litigation matters of all natures. The focus of her practice is Intellectual Property. She also assists the firm’s clients in the prosecution and litigation of trademarks.
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