Oracle Corp. (ORCL) won a U.S. appeals court bid to revive claims that Google Inc. copied its Java programming language to develop the Android operating system, in a case that split Silicon Valley.
The shortcuts created by Java to perform basic functions like connecting to the Internet are eligible for copyright protection, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington ruled today. The court reinstated a jury’s 2012 finding that Google infringed the copyrights, and sent the case back to let Google argue it had fair use of the technology.
Oracle, the largest database-software maker, had sought more than $1 billion in damages, claiming Google used Java code without paying because it was in a rush to create Android, which has become the world’s most popular smartphone platform. The case divided the industry between companies that write interface code and those that rely on it to develop software programs.
The decision “is a win for Oracle and the entire software industry that relies on copyright protection to fuel innovation and ensure that developers are rewarded for their breakthroughs,” Oracle General Counsel Dorian Daley said in a statement.
Google said the ruling “sets a damaging precedent for computer science and software development.” The company is considering its options, said Matt Kallman, a spokesman.
Software makers Microsoft Corp., NetApp Inc. and EMC Corp. filed arguments supporting Oracle. Rackspace Hosting Inc., a group of computer scientists and the Application Developers Alliance sided with Google, saying the specific tools in the case are little more than directions without creativity.
“A set of commands to instruct a computer to carry out desired operations may contain expression that is eligible for copyright protection,” Circuit Judge Kathleen O’Malley wrote for the three-judge panel. “An original work -- even one that serves a function -- is entitled to copyright protection as long as the author had multiple ways to express the underlying idea.”
The dispute centered on application programming interfaces, or APIs, code that lets programmers take advantage of functions already built into an operating system, such as securing data, drawing on-screen graphics or communicating with other devices. Developers using Java wouldn’t have to create a new formula for those features, saving time and money while they focused on other aspects of writing the operating system.
Sun Microsystems Inc., which created Java in the mid-1990s, allowed it to be freely available to developers, though it had a pricing structure for when the code was used for commercial purposes. Oracle agreed to buy Sun in 2009 for $7.4 billion and sued Google a year later.
Oracle sought as much as $6.1 billion in damages from Google before the estimate was thrown out by the judge ahead of trial. It could still seek more than $1 billion.
The Redwood City, California-based company claimed that, by using the Java code, Google preempted Oracle’s ability to use Java for its own platform for mobile devices.
“We are extremely pleased that the Federal Circuit denied Google’s attempt to drastically limit copyright protection for computer code,” Oracle’s Daley said in a statement. “We are confident that the district court will appropriately apply the fair use doctrine on remand, which is not intended to protect naked commercial exploitation of copyrighted material.”
Google, based in Mountain View, California, said the code constitutes fundamental programming interfaces used by the entire industry for free. It accused Oracle of trying to backpedal on Sun pledges that Java would remain free.
The debate centered in part on where the line is drawn between software that’s eligible for copyright protection and what is not.
“The Java platform is a masterpiece of creativity and the Federal Circuit understood that, without it, software gets no protection at all,” said Oracle lawyer Josh Rosenkranz of Orrick Herrington in New York.
The application programming interfaces act similarly to a plug that lets one program interact with another and “there shouldn’t be copyright protection for the shape of the plugs,” said Jonathan Band, a Washington-based copyright lawyer who filed legal arguments on behalf of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, which sided with Google.
He said the ruling could mean increased prices, such as for programmers who develop applications for mobile devices.
“Things everyone assumed were not protected by copyright are now copyrightable,” Band said. “Maybe the license fee goes up.”
The Federal Circuit, which specializes in patent law, heard the case because Oracle also claimed patent infringement. Oracle isn’t appealing the jury loss on that issue.
The case is Oracle America Inc. v. Google Inc. (GOOG), 13-1021, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (Washington). The lower court case is Oracle America Inc. v. Google Inc., 10cv3561, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California (San Francisco).
To contact the reporter on this story: Susan Decker in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org