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.
The court should also find out whether the SSO used in the Java and supposedly copied into Android are really the original work of the Java creators or they are also copied from some earlier programming languages for which patents may not have been filed - may be Google should unearth such evidence and put it in front of the court.
Patenting your invention protects you for 17 years while you profit from the invention without your competitors being able to do the same. This is what the patent law was intended to do. Today, many companies have a pile of patents that they don't use in their product, but instead go out and find other companies that "might" infringe on these very broad patents and take them to court. It seems to me to be a very poor business practice with bad morals. I guess anything for a buck.
xorbit -- great screen name! Please tell me it's origin is what I think it is -- something to do with an "XOR" patent way back when for moving a cursor on a computer screen?
It was long rumored that the XOR patent is what killed Commodore, and that the XOR bit blit technique was already in use at the time the patent was filed.
It would be great if an intellectual property attorney could offer some insight here on copyrights vs. patents as they apply to this case.
Here's my understanding and source of confusion.
In the old days, copyright only applied to written or recorded works -- books, magazine articles, music publishing, and electronically recorded performances like music, film and video recordings. Copyright was later extended to include software source code, and in the 1990s, software IP protection was expanded to allow not only copyrights but also patents on software.
This is where I get confused about this case:
Direct copying of a portion of a copyrighted work might be ruled a copyright violation, unless it is deemed "fair use." Most of us non-lawyers intuitively understand this as a question of plagiarism. If you plagiarize an entire copyrighted work without the owner's permission, you clearly have committed a copyright violation. If you copy only a small excerpt from it and give proper attribution to the owner, that often falls under "fair use."
In this case, the jury found that Google infringed by copying 9 lines of Java code in the making of Android. No fair use there.
But the structure, sequence and organization of an API? That sounds like the realm of patents, not copyrights -- using someone's invention (if indeed Oracle has such patents) rather than copying their published work directly.
If the SSO of an API gets declared as a copyrightable work, rather than an invention, the IP world is going to be severely shaken up and xorbit is right -- it will be a major blow to compatibility and interoperability.
If they would decide that SSO is copyrightable, anything implementing a compatible implementation of anything else is in trouble.
Talk about a blow to interoperability and competition if everyone can start to demand money for making something compatible.
The complexity of the case and the technical content is significant, more importantly the impact of the case could be far reaching. I am wondering if there could be a better way to decide the legality and damages due with cases like this? I would not be happy if I was involved in the trial (either side) and saw that the jury did not understand my points or contentions! Time will tell, I can't wait to see how this all plays out.
David Patterson, known for his pioneering research that led to RAID, clusters and more, is part of a team at UC Berkeley that recently made its RISC-V processor architecture an open source hardware offering. We talk with Patterson and one of his colleagues behind the effort about the opportunities they see, what new kinds of designs they hope to enable and what it means for today’s commercial processor giants such as Intel, ARM and Imagination Technologies.