Oracle Corp won a legal victory against Google Inc on Friday as a U.S.
appeals court decided Oracle could copyright parts of the Java
programming language, which Google used to design its Android smartphone
The case, decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals
for the Federal Circuit in Washington, is being closely watched in
Silicon Valley. A high-profile 2012 trial featured testimony from
Oracle's chief executive, Larry Ellison, and Google CEO Larry Page, and
the legal issues go to the heart of how tech companies protect their
most valuable intellectual property.
Google's Android operating
system is the world's best-selling smartphone platform. Oracle sued
Google in 2010, claiming that Google had improperly incorporated parts
of Java into Android. Oracle is seeking roughly $1 billion on its
A San Francisco federal judge had decided that
Oracle could not claim copyright protection on parts of Java, but on
Friday the three-judge Federal Circuit panel reversed that ruling.
conclude that a set of commands to instruct a computer to carry out
desired operations may contain expression that is eligible for copyright
protection," Federal Circuit Judge Kathleen O'Malley wrote.
Samuelson, a professor at University of California, Berkeley, School of
Law who wrote a brief supporting Google in the case, said the Federal
Circuit's decision means software companies now face uncertainty in
determining how to write interoperable computer programs that do not
"What we have is a decision that will definitely shake up the software industry," said Samuelson.
Oracle attorney E. Joshua Rosenkranz said the law has always been clear
on these issues. "There's nothing at all astounding in what the Federal
Circuit did," he said.
case examined whether computer language that connects programs - known
as application programming interfaces, or APIs - can be copyrighted. At
trial in San Francisco, Oracle said Google's Android trampled on its
rights to the structure of 37 Java APIs.
U.S. District Judge
William Alsup ruled that the Java APIs replicated by Google were not
subject to copyright protection and were free for all to use. The
Federal Circuit disagreed on Friday, ruled for Oracle and instructed the
lower court to reinstate a jury's finding of infringement as to 37 Java
"We find that the district court failed to
distinguish between the threshold question of what is copyrightable —
which presents a low bar — and the scope of conduct that constitutes
infringing activity," O'Malley wrote.
The unanimous Federal
Circuit panel ordered further proceedings before Alsup to decide whether
Google's actions were protected under fair use.
could still craft interoperable programs if the opinion stands, but
lawyers will have to be more involved in signing off on what is
permissible, said Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University
School of Law.
"That's really expensive and lawyers are not going
to give yes or no answers, and that's going to be stressful for
everybody," Goldman said.
Google had argued that software should
only be allowed to be patented, not copyrighted. However, O'Malley wrote
that the Federal Circuit is bound to respect copyright protection for
software, "until either the Supreme Court or Congress tells us
Oracle General Counsel Dorian Daley called the
decision a "win" for an industry "that relies on copyright protection to
fuel innovation." Google said it set a "damaging precedent for computer
science and software development" and was considering its options.