SAN JOSE – Google appeared to block what could have been a devastating punch against its Android operating system in the legal suit brought by Oracle. But this battle is far from over.
Oracle is suing Google for violating the Java copyrights and patents it acquired with Sun Microsystems. Oracle is asking for at least a billion dollars in damages and an injunction against Android, and it is threatening people selling Android systems that they might owe royalties to Oracle.
Fears that Google might need to significantly revise Android appear to be abating following a partial decision rendered today in the first part of the case. The jury said Google did infringe copyright on 37 Java APIs, but could not decide whether or not that infringement was covered by fair use terms.
As with all court cases, plenty more shoes have yet to fall. Google is pressing for a retrial, hoping for a decisive win. Oracle still has a patent suit in play.
Indeed, one expert observer said at this point “nothing final has been decided yet,” and a number of key issues are still open.
The jury found Google copied the structure, sequence, and organization of 37 of the APIs in Java. But “everyone is still waiting for the judge to decide the most important question in the case, which is [whether] the structure, sequence, and organization (SSO) of an API [is] copyrightable,” said Tyler T. Ochoa, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law.
“Oracle wins only if the SSO is copyrightable, and the use was not a fair use, and neither of those questions has been decided yet,” said Ochoa.
Among its other findings, the jury said Google copied a little bit of Oracle source code. “Damages for that copying would be limited to about $150,000 dollars, but if the SSO is copyrightable, then damages could still be much higher,” said Ochoa.
In addition, the jury decided that even though Sun engaged in conduct that might have misled people, Google's decision to use the SSO was not made in reliance on that conduct, he said.
If the judge decides APIs are copyrightable "it would be quite problematic," Ochoa said. "If the structure, sequence, and organization of APIs are copyrightable, then the copyright owner can demand royalties from anyone who wants to write a program that operates in the same way," he added.
Like Java and Android code itself, the legal arguments are complex. The judge’s instructions to the jury were in my view a daunting assignment requiring a relatively sophisticated understanding of both technical and legal issues.
The Associated Press did a good job summarizing the jury’s decisions on the multiple questions it was asked. However, interpreting those decisions and understanding what next legal steps may fall from them is a much more complex task.
At a 30,000-foot view the horizon seems somewhat clear. As James Gosling, the father of Java said, Google does appear to have copied parts of Java.
I’d love to hear cogent insights from any other legal or software experts following the case. I’d also like to hear what OEMs and developers using Android are feeling and doing at this point. So please chime in below.
Meanwhile, the case goes on.
By the way, before anyone starts waving the flag of the free open source software movement, let’s remember there’s no free lunch. Google is giving away an operating system that a Microsoft or Apple would otherwise sell so it can get more eyeballs in front of its search engine and many, many other online services.
There’s a price for that free software. But that may not be determined by the Oracle v Google case.