A US federal appeals court ruled Google violated copyright laws by using Oracle’s software when developing its Android mobile platform. Judges for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled Google’s unauthorized use of 37 packages of Oracle’s open-source Java application programming interface, or API, while constructing the Android platform in 2009 was unfair as a matter of law.
Figures cited in the court ruling suggest Google has generated $42bn in advertising from Android, which is made available to consumers for free, with contractual requirements for handset makers.
“There is nothing fair about taking a copyrighted work verbatim and using it for the same purpose and function as the original in a competing platform,” the panel of judges wrote.
Google argued its use of Oracle’s software was protected under fair use because it didn’t directly charge clients to use it, but Oracle said Google’s actions were “devastating” to its licensing strategy as many customers switched to Android.
“he fact that Android is free of charge does not make Google’s use of the Java API packages non-commercial,” the judges wrote.
The case was first filed in 2010 and initially included a patent infringement claim. The patent claim failed but Oracle’s copyright claim was upheld in 2012.
The jury at the time was unable to decide on whether Google’s use of Oracle’s Java APIs could be excused as fair use, so District Court Judge William Alsup ruled that Java APIs are not protected by copyright law, a decision hailed by many Silicon Valley as a means to ensure unconstrained code interoperability.
Oracle appealed and in 2014, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit overturned Alsup’s decision. Google asked the Supreme Court to intervene, but the Supreme Court declined to hear the case. The case went back to Alsup’s court where the jury concluded Google’s infringement of Oracle’s copyright should be excused as fair use.
Oracle appealed again, and finally has been vindicated. The appeals court ruled that Google’s use of the Java APIs fails to qualify as fair use under the law and that Oracle’s claim for damages must be considered.
A key consideration in whether the use of copyrighted material qualifies for the fair use defense is whether the use is transformative. The appeals court decided that Google’s use of the Java APIs was not transformative.
Oracle had been seeking about $8.8 billion in damages at the time of the previous ruling.
“The Federal Circuit’s opinion upholds fundamental principles of copyright law and makes clear that Google violated the law,” Oracle general counsel Dorian Daley said.
“This decision protects creators and consumers from the unlawful abuse of their rights.”
Google didn’t state whether it would challenge the ruling, but a representative said the company is “considering our options.”
“We are disappointed the court reversed the jury finding that Java is open and free for everyone,” the representative said.
“This type of ruling will make apps and online services more expensive for users. We are considering our options.”
Part of Google’s defense was that the 11,500 lines of copied code were insignificant compared to the millions of lines of code in Android. The appeals court rejected that by asserting the quality and importance of the copied portion must be considered alongside the quantity.
The judges ordered the case remanded to a federal district court in California to determine damages.
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Corynne McSherry, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a cyber advocacy group that has supported Google’s position in this case, slammed the reversal and suggested it bodes ill for small software firms.
“This entire case has been a travesty start to finish,”
“First, the Federal Circuit has no business resolving a copyright fight between two California companies. Second, having taken jurisdiction the Federal Circuit has apparently decided to continue its anti-innovation tradition by wreaking as much havoc in copyright law as it has with patent law.”
“Consider what happened here: the court rejected the district court’s first finding on copyrightability, thereby forcing everyone to go back to court on fair use – and then rejected that finding as well. If I were a small software company I would be terrified.”
McSherry said she expects Google will seek a Supreme Court review. “While it’s always an uphill battle, I don’t think they have much to lose at this point,” she said.