Google not guilty of infringing copyright in Oracle's Java APIs

Out-Law News | 01 Jun 2012 | 2:38 pm | 3 min. read

Google could legitimately copy the function of computer code owned by Oracle because it did not copy the "specific code" that Oracle had used to achieve that functionality, a US court has ruled.

Judge William Alsup said Oracle could not claim copyright protection for the use of Java application programming interfaces (APIs) in all circumstances. The company could only benefit from copyright protection for the specific way it had implemented the technology, he said. Because Google had used different code from the one used by Oracle to achieve the same function that Oracle's code provides, Google was not guilty of copyright infringement, Alsup said.

"As long as the specific code written to implement a method is different, anyone is free under the Copyright Act to write his or her own method to carry out exactly the same function or specification of any and all methods used in the Java API," Alsup said in his ruling as posted on the Techdirt technology website. "Contrary to Oracle, copyright law does not confer ownership over any and all ways to implement a function or specification, no matter how creative the copyrighted implementation or specification may be."

"The Act confers ownership only over the specific way in which the author wrote out his version. Others are free to write their own implementation to accomplish the identical function, for, importantly, ideas, concepts and functions cannot be monopolized by copyright," Alsup said.

Java is a technology that allows programmers to write computer code that will run in many computing environments. APIs enable applications, platforms and other system elements to communicate.

In 2010 Oracle initiated a case against Google claiming that the internet giant was guilty of infringing its copyrights and patents in how it used Java technology in its Android operating system. The company claimed that Google required a licence to use the Java platform but had not bought one, and that therefore "without consent, authorization, approval, or license, Google knowingly, willingly, and unlawfully copied, prepared, published, and distributed Oracle America's copyrighted work, portions thereof, or derivative works".

Oracle also claimed that Google was also guilty of helping other companies that utilise the Android operating system - such as mobile phone device manufacturers - infringe its rights.

A jury previously found that the structure, sequence and organisation of Java APIs used in connection with Google's Android operating system infringed Oracle's rights over its proprietary software. However, that ruling was made on the presumption that the 37 Java API "packages" that Google had alleged unlawfully reproduced were copyrightable.

Alsup has now said, though, that inventions "at the concept and functionality level" are only protectable as patents and not by copyright. He said that Google had replicated 3% of the code used by Oracle when it had reproduced the functionality of Oracle's 37 Java APIs but that the internet giant was free to do so under US copyright law.

"[The US Copyright Act] states that 'in no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation ... regardless of the form ...' That a system or method of operation has thousands of commands arranged in a creative taxonomy does not change its character as a method of operation," he said.

"Yes, it is creative. Yes, it is original. Yes, it resembles a taxonomy. But it is nevertheless a command structure, a system or method of operation - a long hierarchy of over six thousand commands to carry out pre-assigned functions," Alsup added. "For that reason, it cannot receive copyright protection - patent protection perhaps - but not copyright protection."

The judge added that Google had replicated "what was necessary" in order that it could "achieve a degree of interoperability" for the use of Java-supported applications on Android.

"To accept Oracle's claim [for blanket copyright protection for the implementation of its code] would be to allow anyone to copyright one version of the 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," Alsup said. "No holding has ever endorsed such a sweeping proposition."

Alsup dismissed Oracle's claims that Google had infringed its rights, but said that his findings were pertinent only to this individual case.

"This order does not hold that Java API packages are free for all to use without license," he said. "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."

A jury previously determined that Google did not infringe on Oracle's patent rights by using Java software within Android.