Oracle recently appealed a decision by federal court over whether Google’s use of the Java application programming interfaces (“APIs”) are fair use. From the onset of the litigation, Oracle has claimed explicit copyright to the Java APIs, alleging that Google has infringed upon these copyrights when it created the Android operating system. Google, on the other hand, claims that they wrote their own version of Java in order to implement the Android operating system. The wrinkle, however, comes from the fact that Google had to rely on using the same organization, functionality, and even names of Oracle’s Java API’s in order to ensure smooth implementation of the Android operating system.
In the original litigation between Google and Oracle, the district court ruled against Oracle, holding that the Java APIs in question were not copyrightable. In his decision, Judge Alsup of the Northern District of California, noted that allowing Oracle to claim copyright over the Java APIs was akin to granting Oracle carte blanche over a series of coding protocols that programmers needed access to in order to innovate. Similar to FRAND arguments regarding fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory licensing terms in order to support and foster improvement on existing technologies, Alsup found in favor of Google.
Unhappy with the decision, Oracle appealed the North District of California’s 2012 ruling, petitioning for a hearing before the Federal Circuit. As the epic legal battle between Oracle and Google gained traction and further notoriety, amicus briefs began to pour in. In 2013, the Electronic Frontier Federation (“EFF”) filed an amicus brief in support of Google, arguing that the Java APIs at issue should never be subject to copyright. Despite this plea from the EFF and several computer scientists, however, the Federal Circuit decided to reverse the lower court’s ruling, holding that the Java APIs were, in fact, copyrightable. Interestingly, however, the Federal Circuit’s ruling distinctly left open the possibility of a defense of fair use for Google upon further rehearings.
As such, Google filed its own appeal, questioning the Federal Circuit’s decision and asking the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene upon their behalf in a 2014 petition. Again, the EFF filed an amicus brief in support of Google’s position. Unfortunately, while the Supreme Court declined to hear Google’s petition for review, the case was returned to the district court level. This time, the federal district court allowed Google to argue that their use of the Java APIs constituted fair use, and as such, was still not abusive or infringing in any way. In 2016, a jury agreed with Google’s argument, finding that Google’s use of the Java APIs did indeed classify as fair use.
By now the legal wrangling between Google and Oracle has lasted more than eight years and shows no signs of waning. In fact, Oracle has already signaled their intention to appeal the latest holding, and as such, practitioners should follow the debate between Oracle and Google because, whatever the outcome may be, it will have long-lasting ramifications on the state of fair use and software copyrights in the intellectual property field.
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