Google Cleared of Java Copyright Infringement: In First Ruling on Copyrightability of APIs, CA Court Finds That Functional Java API Code Is a “Method of Operation” Not Protected By Copyright Law
On May 31, 2012, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California reached its decision regarding the copyright claims in Oracle America, Inc. v. Google Inc., No. C 10-03561 WHA (N.D. Cal. May 31, 2012). At issue was whether certain replicated elements of the structure, sequence and organization of Java’s (the popular programming language) application programming interface (API) were copyrightable.
Java was originally developed by Sun Microsystems, Inc. in the 1990s. In 2010, Oracle Corporation acquired Sun Microsystems, Inc., including Sun’s interest in Java. Shortly after this acquisition, Oracle sued Google, Inc. for copyright and patent infringement, alleging that Google’s Android operating system for mobile devices infringed Oracle’s copyrights and patents in Java. Central to Oracle’s copyright infringement claim was that Google had copied the structure, sequence and organization of the code for 37 of Java’s API packages – an allegation the jury agreed with.
However, for Oracle to succeed on its copyright infringement claim, it was required to prove not only that Google had copied Java’s API, but also that Java’s API was protected by copyright law in the first place. This question was left for the judge to decide, and Judge Alsup ultimately determined that the API was not copyrightable.
Java’s and Android’s APIs were organized in the same way, but were written with different implementations that solved the same problems and served the same functions. To implement virtually all of those functions, Google had “written or acquired its own source code.” These implementations were different from Java’s implementations and accounted for 97% of the lines of code in the 37 API packages of operational code at issue. Judge Alsup held that “as long as the specific code written to implement a method is different, anyone is free under the Copyright Act to write his or her own method to carry out exactly the same function or specification of any and all methods used in the Java API. The Act confers ownership only over the specific way in which the author wrote out his version. Others are free to write their own implementation to accomplish the identical function, for, importantly, ideas, concepts and functions cannot be monopolized by copyright.” (emphasis added).
As to the 3% of the lines of code that were identical between the Java and Android APIs, the court held that those lines were necessary in order for the correct functions to be carried out. Because there was only one way to express the declaration lines for methods and classes, Judge Alsup applied the merger doctrine (which removes from copyright protection expression that is necessary to achieve desired results) and held that the declaration lines were not protected by copyright law. The court further noted that the names given to the methods and classes were not protected because names and short phrases cannot be copyrighted.
Finally, the Android API had the same command structure as the Java API. While Google could have grouped the Android API’s methods under different classes and packages than the Java API and achieved the same functionality, the court found that the “overall scheme of file organization” was also an uncopyrightable method of operation for achieving particular functions. The court distinguished between copyright and patent protection, noting that while the command structure could receive “patent protection perhaps,” it was not protected by copyright.
Putting aside the likely appeal of the order, the broader impact of this ruling on the question of the copyrightability of APIs is unclear given that Judge Alsup limited his holding to the “specific facts of this case.” The judge explicitly noted that the court’s order “does not hold that Java API packages are free for all to use without license” and “does not hold that the structure, sequence and organization of all computer programs may be stolen.” We will keep you posted on developments in this case.