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A Short Guide to Year Six of ‘Oracle America, Inc. v. Google, Inc’

One final question remains: Is implementing an API considered fair use?

by Michael Byrne
Mar 30 2016, 10:30am

Image: Shawn Collins/Flickr

Since 2010, Google and Oracle, the corporate parent of the Java development ecosystem, have been locked in a fairly stupid legal battle. Google, in the early-days development of Android, used a now-retired implementation of Java that was intended to be open-source but was never actually/officially licensed from Sun Microsystems, Java's original and much more amenable corporate parent which was bought out by Oracle in 2010.

Though the not-officially-licensed Java components are to be replaced in the next Android version—amusingly and confusingly, they're being replaced by Oracle's "official" open-source Java implementations—they were there as Android blossomed. And so Oracle wants Google to give it a lot of money. This week, the company increased its request for damages from $6 billion to $9.3 billion. Both figures are way off from Oracle's even earlier 2012 estimate of $27.7 million. Key to the increases was Oracle's revelation earlier this year that Google had made some $21 billion in profits from Android.

Though the figures have changed, Oracle America, Inc. v. Google, Inc is back where it started, at least in part.

In 2012, Oracle won only the tiniest court victory when a jury agreed that its API had been infringed by Google. But the jury deadlocked on the subsequent question of whether that infringement can be covered under fair use, and it also rejected Oracle's patent infringement claims.

The judge in the case would go on to nuke most of the jury's infringement finding, deciding that: "So long as the specific code used to implement a method is different, anyone is free under the Copyright Act to write his or her own code to carry out exactly the same function or specification of any methods used in the Java API. It does not matter that the declaration or method header lines are identical."

The freedom to reimplement and extend existing APIs has been the key to competition and progress in the computer field—both hardware and software.

But then, in 2014, an appeals court decided that yes, an API can totally be infringed and that the lower court would once again have to consider the issue of fair use. Fast forward to 2016.

Now we have a new trial set for May 9, according to InformationWeek. A new jury will be faced with the by-now old question of whether or not Google's usage of the Java API consisted of fair use. Said API is basically a specification for what some code should do without really saying what the code actually is, specifically, for accomplishing that functionality. The prescribed functionality might be achieved in any number of different ways, which are up to the API user.

In 2013, the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed an amicus brief on this API question on behalf of a long list of computer scientists. A few crucial snippets:

The freedom to reimplement and extend existing APIs has been the key to competition and progress in the computer field—both hardware and software. It made possible the emergence and success of many robust industries we now take for granted—such as industries for mainframes, PCs, peripherals (storage, modems, printers, sound cards, etc.), workstations/servers, and so on—by ensuring that competitors could challenge established players and advance the state of the art. Thus, excluding APIs from copyright protection has been essential to the development of modern computers and the Internet.

The uncopyrightable nature of APIs spurs the creation of software that otherwise would not have been written. When programmers can freely reimplement or reverse engineer an API without the need to negotiate a costly license or risk a lawsuit, they can create compatible software that the interface's original creator might never have envisioned or had the resources to create.

As you can see, this is a really important question.

InformationWeek offers a curious postscript about the upcoming trial: The judge in the case has proposed "an outright ban preventing counsel and the parties from conducting social media and Internet searches" of potential jurors. Google has been accepting of the idea, but so far Oracle has only offered to not make logged-in Facebook searches of the jurors. If a ban isn't agreed to, Google and Oracle will both be required to explain to jurors how the corporations used social media to monitor and investigate them. Sounds awkward.