Copyright Law

Federal Circuit rules Google infringed copyright, may owe billions

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In a decision that could ripple through the software industry, a federal appeals court determined that Google violated Oracle’s copyright by using its open-source code.

The opinion by U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed a 2016 jury decision that Google’s usage of the code was fair use under copyright law.

“It’s a momentous decision on the issue of fair use,” lawyer Mark Schonfeld of Burns & Levinson in Boston told Bloomberg. “It is very, very important for the software industry. I think it’s going to go to the Supreme Court because the Federal Circuit has made a very controversial decision.”

Oracle first filed suit in 2010, accusing Google of infringing the copyright of its Java APIs—application programming interfaces—a way for computer software applications to interact with each other. Oracle acquired the Java code with the purchase of Sun Microsystems the same year.

U.S. Circuit Court Judge Kathleen O’Malley wrote for the appeals court, saying: “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 Federal Circuit’s opinion upholds fundamental principles of copyright law and makes clear that Google violated the law,” said Dorian Daley, Oracle general counsel, in a statement. “This decision protects creators and consumers from the unlawful abuse of their rights.”

The court’s decision remanded the case back to the Northern California trial court that it originated in. Oracle is seeking $8.8 billion dollars from Google.

“We are disappointed the court reversed the jury finding that Java is open and free for everyone,” said Google spokesman Patrick Lenihan, according to Reuters. “This type of ruling will make apps and online services more expensive for users.”

In an amicus brief from a separate appeal in the case, the Electronic Frontier Foundation said: “The freedom to reimplement and extend existing APIs has been the key to competition and progress in the computer field—both hardware and software.” The brief, which had dozens of signatories from the computer science field, went on to argue, “The uncopyrightable nature of APIs spurs the creation of software that otherwise would not have been written.”

Pamela Samuelson, professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley, believes that the court’s decision could have a significant impact beyond the two tech giants.

“If Google infringed Oracle copyrights by its use of Java API, then everyone who owns an Android device and every maker of these devices is an infringer too,” she tweeted. “Massive liability.”

This is not the first appeal in this conflict. In 2012, a jury found that Google had infringed Oracle’s copyrights, but was undecided if the infringed material was fair use or not.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup, in fact, ruled that the APIs were not copyrightable.

“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,” he wrote.

Both parties appealed. Subsequently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit found that APIs were copyrightable and remanded the case to the trial court in 2014. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear that appeal.

This week’s decision reverses the second trial, which also found for Google.

This protracted, eight-year legal fight is not over with this decision. Google may ask the three-judge panel to reconsider its decision or request that the case be reviewed en banc.

Google may also attempt to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Corrects spelling of judge’s name in 13th graf at 9:05 a.m.

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