Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Judge Says Oracle Can’t Copyright Java APIs

One of the more controversial stances that the software giant Oracle had taken as part of its dispute over Java with the search giant Google was that 37 specific application-programming interfaces — software tools that programmers use to work with Java — could be subject to copyright protections. Today, the judge hearing the case ruled that they cannot.

Judge William Alsup ruled only on the issue of the 37 specific APIs, and didn’t tackle the wider issue over whether or not an API actually can be protected under copyright law. Some software developers had worried that it might be an overbroad interpretation that would tie up some widely used techniques under tricky copyright rules.

Oracle, you’ll recall, had sued Google, alleging both copyright and patent infringement over Google’s use of Java in creating the Android mobile operating system. Google had countered that Java is free to use, and that the APIs are more or less required to use Java in the first place. Oracle won a narrow, but hollow victory in the copyright phase of the trial, but lost outright in the patent phase.

Barring an appeal — and more on that, presently — Oracle won’t collect enough damages over the one case of infringement to cover the cost of the trial. A statement made during the trial limited the potential damages Oracle could collect from the one piece of software code infringed to about $150,000.

The key bit of Alsup’s opinion: “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.”

In a statement, Oracle promised to appeal. It also stuck to its guns that Google must make its implementation of Java within Android compatible with all other versions of Java, something that Google isn’t likely to do.

Here is the full text of Oracle’s response to Alsup’s ruling:

Oracle is committed to the protection of Java as both a valuable development platform and a valuable intellectual property asset. It will vigorously pursue an appeal of this decision in order to maintain that protection and to continue to support the broader Java community of over 9 million developers and countless law abiding enterprises. Google’s implementation of the accused APIs is not a free pass, since a license has always been required for an implementation of the Java Specification. And the court’s reliance on “interoperability” ignores the undisputed fact that Google deliberately eliminated interoperability between Android and all other Java platforms. Google’s implementation intentionally fragmented Java and broke the “write once, run anywhere” promise. This ruling, if permitted to stand, would undermine the protection for innovation and invention in the United States and make it far more difficult to defend intellectual property rights against companies anywhere in the world that simply takes them as their own.

And here’s Google’s comment:

The court’s decision upholds the principle that open and interoperable computer languages form an essential basis for software development. It’s a good day for collaboration and innovation.

I didn’t get a copy of the ruling, but ZDNet did, so I’m taking the liberty of embedding its copy here:

Oracle v. Google: Order Regarding Copyrightability of APIs

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik