Jury Decides Google Did Not Infringe Oracle Patents but Question of Whether APIs Can Be Copyrighted Remains
By Brittany Horth – Edited by Michael Hoven
Oracle America, Inc. v. Google Inc., No. 10-03561 (N.D. Cal. 2012)
Special verdict on copyright claims from May 7, 2012 (hosted by Scribd)
Special verdict on patent claims from May 23, 2012 (hosted by Scribd)
A jury in the U.S. District Court of Northern California in San Francisco unanimously decided that Google’s Android mobile operating system does not infringe Oracle’s U.S. Patent No. RE38,104 and U.S. Patent No. 6,061,520. The special verdict came approximately two weeks after the jury unanimously decided that Google infringed Oracle’s copyright on Java application programming interfaces (APIs) but failed to reach any agreement on whether Google had a valid fair use defense.
U.S. District Judge William Alsup canceled the third phase of the trial, which would have addressed damages, and dismissed the jury after the second special verdict. However, the proceedings will continue since Judge Alsup has yet to answer the crucial legal question of whether APIs can be copyrighted in the first place, which will determine the fate of the partial verdict from the copyright infringement segment of the trial.
Bloomberg provides a brief overview of the case and the recent special verdicts. Ars Technica provides a more detailed explanation of the partial verdict from the copyright infringement segment of the trial and its potential ramifications for programmers. CNET provides a more detailed explanation of the verdict from the patent infringement segment of the trial.
In 2010, Oracle became the owner of Java when it acquired Sun Microsystems and subsequently sued Google over allegations that the Android mobile operating system violated copyrights and patents on Java. The trial started on April 16, 2012, as reported by JOLT Digest. Oracle made the controversial argument that APIs are subject to copyright protection and alleged that Google violated copyrights on Java when it copied thirty-seven Java APIs in creating Android.
The jury agreed that Google “infringed the overall structure, sequence, and organization” of the Java APIs but only under Judge Alsup’s instruction to assume that APIs are copyrightable in the first place. The jury failed to unanimously decide whether Google’s use of the thirty-seven Java APIs as part of the Android APIs constituted fair use. This prompted Google to demand a mistrial and Oracle to motion for a judgment as a matter of law that Google’s fair use defense cannot be used in this case, a motion denied by Judge Alsup as reported by ZDNet.
At the same time, the jury unanimously decided the two other copyright infringement questions: Google did not infringe the documentation for the thirty-seven Java APIs and did not infringe all but one short software function, the “rangeCheck method in TimSort.java and ComparableTimShort.java.” In the second segment of the trial addressing patent infringement, the jury also unanimously decided that Google did not infringe two of Oracle’s patents on Java, which nullified Oracle’s prospect of winning millions or even billions of dollars in claimed patent infringement damages.
Judge Alsup now has to declare as a matter of law whether APIs can be copyrighted in the first place. If he decides that they can be copyrighted, then there might have to be a new trial for the copyright infringement claims as the result of the jury’s failure to agree whether Google had a valid fair use defense. If he decides that they cannot be copyrighted, then he can award statutory damages for the infringement of the “rangeCheck method in TimSort.java and ComparableTimShort.java.” Either way, Oracle can subsequently appeal Judge Alsup’s decision and either or both jury verdicts to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
Whether or not APIs are deemed copyrightable will not only determine the fate of the litigation between Oracle and Google but may also influence how programmers interact with Java and other free and open-source programming languages in the future.