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Oracle Says It Will Appeal Java API Copyright Decision

Oracle is walking away with next to nothing after spending two years and tens of million of dollars prosecuting Google

Oracle is walking away with next to nothing after spending two years and what is believed to be tens of million of dollars prosecuting Google and its Android operating system for patent and copyright infringement.

US District Court Judge William Alsup, who has been responsible for the case since the beginning, including a six-week jury trial that ended last week, finally decided Thursday that the way Google used the structure, sequence and organization (SSO) of the 37 Java APIs Oracle asserted didn’t infringe copyright law.

He made it very clear that he didn’t decide that APIs aren’t or couldn’t be copyrighted, but that – contrary to Oracle’s position – not all SSOs are protected by copyright.

“This order,” he said, “does not hold that Java API packages are free for all to use without license. It does not hold that the structure, sequence and organization of all computer programs may be stolen. Rather, it holds on the specific facts of this case, the particular elements replicated by Google were free for all to use under the Copyright Act.”

Evidently Google didn’t copy enough to meet Judge Alsup’s infringement standards. Only 3% of the source code in the 37 APIs is duplicated, he said. Moreover, he subordinates copyright rights to function and what he deems interoperability.

“So long as the specific code used to implement a method is different,” he said, “anyone is free under the Copyright Act to write his or her own code to carry out exactly the same function or specification of any methods used in the Java API. It does not matter that the declaration or method header lines are identical. Under the rules of Java, they must be identical to declare a method specifying the same functionality – even when the implementation is different. When there is only one way to express an idea or function, then everyone is free to do so and no one can monopolize that expression. And, while the Android method and class names could have been different from the names of their counterparts in Java and still have worked, copyright protection never extends to names or short phrases as a matter of law.

“It is true that the very same functionality could have been offered in Android without duplicating the exact command structure used in Java. This could have been done by re-arranging the various methods under different groupings among the various classes and packages (even if the same names had been used). In this sense, there were many ways to group the methods yet still duplicate the same range of functionality.

“But the names are more than just names – they are symbols in a command structure wherein the commands take the form java.package.Class.method().

“Each command calls into action a pre-assigned function. The overall name tree, of course, has creative elements but it is also a precise command structure – a utilitarian and functional set of symbols, each to carry out a pre-assigned function. This command structure is a system or method of operation under Section 102(b) of the Copyright Act and, therefore, cannot be copyrighted. Duplication of the command structure is necessary for interoperability.”

In the end he found that “To accept Oracle’s claim would be to allow anyone to copyright one version of code to carry out a system of commands and thereby bar all others from writing their own different versions to carry out all or part of the same commands. No holding has ever endorsed such a sweeping proposition.”

Oracle immediately said it will appeal, which means the case will go to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, DC, if it’ll have it.

FOSS Patents said, “Judge Alsup’s decision is unprecedented in the sense that no comparable amount of software code (400 class definitions including many thousands of methods and other definitions) has previously been held uncopyrightable despite being deemed to satisfy the originality requirement.”

It figures “the appeals court will have to decide whether a sweeping denial of copyrightability is in line with statutory law and case law, or whether copyrightability has to be allowed since the ‘sweeping proposition’ Judge Alsup is concerned about can always be dealt with in other ways.”

The blog thinks Judge Alsup might have been more aligned with case law – and even the opinion of a senior copyright lawyer at Google – if he found the APIs’ SSOs were copyrighted but fair game under fair use and antitrust law.

The statement Oracle issued said, “Google’s implementation of the accused APIs is not a free pass, since a license has always been required for an implementation of the Java specification. And the court’s reliance on ‘interoperability’ ignores the undisputed fact that Google deliberately eliminated interoperability between Android and all other Java platforms. Google’s implementation intentionally fragmented Java and broke the ‘write once, run anywhere; promise. This ruling, if permitted to stand, would undermine the protection for innovation and invention in the United States and make it far more difficult to defend intellectual property rights against companies anywhere in the world that simply takes them as their own.”

Google, of course, had its own statement: “The court’s decision upholds the principle that open and interoperable computer languages form an essential basis for software development. It’s a good day for collaboration and innovation.”

ZDNet put a copy of the 41-page decision up on Scribd - here.

See also here and here.

More Stories By Maureen O'Gara

Maureen O'Gara the most read technology reporter for the past 20 years, is the Cloud Computing and Virtualization News Desk editor of SYS-CON Media. She is the publisher of famous "Billygrams" and the editor-in-chief of "Client/Server News" for more than a decade. One of the most respected technology reporters in the business, Maureen can be reached by email at maureen(at)sys-con.com or paperboy(at)g2news.com, and by phone at 516 759-7025. Twitter: @MaureenOGara

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