Oracle v Google: what does it mean for the software development industry?

16 August 2016

Every tech blogs’ head news story on 26 May 2016 read as follows: ‘Google beats Oracle’.

Two of the world’s software heavyweights recently faced off in one of the most important copyright disputes for industry since the shut down of the illegal music sharing website, Napster.

An overview

In 2010 Oracle sued Google for copyright infringement alleging unauthorised use of Java APIs. APIs are application programming interfaces that make it possible for developers to build applications by essentially creating pathways for software platforms to communicate with each other.

Oracle acquired the rights to the Java language in 2009 when it purchased Sun Microsystems. While the Java language itself is free to use, Oracle claimed Google infringed its copyright by directly copying 37 Java APIs in developing Android.

The first trial in the United States District Court in 2012 resulted in a finding that APIs can’t be subject to copyright protection. However, this finding was overturned on appeal by the US Court of Appeals and the case was remitted back to the District Court.

Having established that APIs are deserving of copyright protection, the issue for the second trial, which took place in May this year, was whether or not Google’s use of the APIs was allowed under U.S. copyright law.

In developing Android, the operating system now used in 80 per cent of the world’s mobile devices, Google copied approximately 11,500 lines of Oracle’s code. While this accounts for less than one-tenth of one percent of Android, Oracle argued this code formed the ‘heart of Android’. Oracle further argued that Android had a devastating impact on their Java licensing business, particularly on the prices Oracle could charge.

Fortunately, the jury found in Google’s favour and agreed that Google’s use of the Java APIs in Android was ‘fair use’. Following the trial, Oracle unsuccessfully attempted to have the verdict overturned by asserting the issue of fair use should have been determined by a Judge as a matter of law, rather than by a Jury. This motion failed and the decision in favour of Google stands.

Why does this decision matter?

With the rapid evolution of technology, and in particular, a growing competitive globalised economy, the jury finding in favour of Oracle may have had disastrous ramifications for the software development industry.

Although we do not have a fair use defence (as plead by Google in relation to this specific case) in Australia, the majority of large technology companies (including software developers) have some form of intrinsic link to the United States. IT Professionals have widely criticised the ruling that APIs attract copyright protection as being against the fundamental and underlying principle of having an API, which was to allow software developers to seamlessly integrate various software functions through the utilisation of a common language.

Further, a ruling in favour of Oracle would have had the following ramifications for the software development industry:

  • Software would not be able to ‘talk’ and exchange data with other software, without a licence to use the API. That may lead to competing technology (example Apple & Android) not being able to work together. Such incompatibility would likely hold back innovation and competition; and
  • An increase in API-based copyright litigation as other software companies would have been encouraged to pursue enforcing copyright in APIs. This would have resulted in a rather uncertain and tumultuous litigious environment for the industry as a whole.
Is this the end for Oracle?

An appeal of the jury decision is likely on its way; however, US lawyers are not too concerned that there are great prospects of success.

Let’s hope this is the end of what may otherwise have been a catastrophic ruling for the software development industry with potential far reaching implications for all those involved in the development of Android based operating systems, hardware and applications utilising Java APIs.

This article was written by Bill Singleton, Partner and Tom Webster, Solicitor.

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