Some days you get the bear and some days the bear gets you. That’s the way it seems with Oracle and Google’s (Alphabet Inc.) snafu in court regarding Java. Oracle America Inc. v. Google Inc. is a United States legal case related to Java code and copyright law.
To be more specific, the case centers around whether the Java application programming interfaces (APIs) copyright can restrict their use in platforms like Google’s Android that’s built on Java. Other systems are also built on Java, including platforms such as OpenJDK (Open Java Development Kit). Wikipedia has a good overview of the court case and related negotiations.
The suit started back in 2010, when Oracle sued Google after Oracle’s acquisition of Sun Microsystems that created Java. A district court ruled in 2012 that the APIs could not be copyrighted. As with many court cases, this one was pushed up to an appeals court that overturned the ruling, indicating the APIs were covered under copyright. Consequently, the original court had to rehear the case.
The subsequent jury trial ruled in 2016 that Google’s use of the Java APIs was permitted as "fair use" under the law. The result went back to the appeals court that flipped things again, tossing out the jury result. This isn’t the end of the appeals process, but if this result holds, it can have major implications in the embedded space where compatible interfaces, especially in open-source software, are common.
What are the Potential Ramifications?
If Oracle wins, in the long run, any API will effectively lock out any second-source software. That’s because the first one to create an API will own the copyright for not only the API definition, but almost any implementation that would support it. This is due to the fact that the compiler and linker tools available today look to match the API definition verbatim. It’s not possible to just change function names or arguments, because eventually the tools need to deal with the original API definition.
The challenge is how these API copyrights relate to “fair use,” which would allow the copyright to remain but enable anyone to use them in some form. No form of fair use could result in locking out the competition—not just in Oracle and Google’s case, but anything similar.
Bloomberg’s recent article about the case notes that Oracle wants $8.8 billion because Google is using Java, which means its APIs are being used in Android. That’s a lot of money, but it pales in comparison to the impact within the software industry. This is because systems are built on systems that are built on systems.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the original appeals court case in 2015. The latest iteration could end where Google on the hook for quite a bit of cash. There are many other possibilities as well, from licensing to appeals.
Unfortunately, quite a few people depend on Android. Still, that would not be the only thing affected if the result of the case remains as it is this time around. The long-term costs and implications could be more significant than just what Google/Alphabet incur with respect to Oracle, so stay tuned.