Fear not Android fans, the popular mobile operating system lives to see another day. Android escaped the first round of an infringement trial involving Google and Oracle with few bruises as jurors seemingly could not agree if Android’s use of Javainfringes on Oracle’s rights to the technology.
The jury did find that Google infringed on the structure of Oracle’s Java copyrights but not the platform in total. True infringement was limited to just nine lines of code, far from enough to force Google to completely redesign the innards of Android. Actual monetary damages will now be far less than the $1 billion Oracle demands.
Google also has a possible way out of the entire mess due to the jury’s convoluted decision. While jurors agreed that Google had indeed infringed on Oracle’s Java technologies, they could not agree whether Google’s use could be considered “fair use.” Google lawyers see this as grounds for a mistrial, calling infringement and fair use “two sides of the same coin.”
If the mistrial motion is unsuccessful, the judge will still have to decide the central issue of the case, and that is whether an API is copyrightable. In layman’s terms, APIs are bits of code help programs talk to each other (Android apps use API calls to use the network, or draw on the screen). Copyright law allows for us to place ownership on creative works, but not functional ones — an API is much more functional than creative: it’s a necessary bit to make software work. The judge here must decide whether or not the API is a creative work, an important decision. Agreeing with Oracle here may open up the floodgates of litigation. Look at how much litigation has been generated by patents alone, and then throw APIs into the mix.
Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Julie Samuels says that such a decision would have broad implications: “APIs are ubiquitous and fundamental to all kinds of program development. It is safe to say that all software developers use APIs to make their software work with other software,” Samuels argues. “Allowing a party to assert control over APIs means that a party can determine who can make compatible and interoperable software, an idea that is anathema to those who create the software we rely on everyday.”
Android seems safe for now
What about Android, and is the operating system in trouble? It appears not. Actual infringement itself is limited to just nine lines of code as I mentioned previously, leaving the whole argument on whether or not APIs are copyrightable as Oracle’s only defense here. If the court disagrees, Google could be liable for as little as $200,000, and wouldn’t have to change much in Android to comply. Considering Oracle was asking for $1 billion, that’s barely a slap on the hand.
Also in Android’s favor is the apparent disagreement over fair use. The jury could not come to a decision, and the concept of fair use must first be struck down for big judgements to occur. While Judge William Alsup has already hinted that he believed Google willfully infringed on Java, the jury was not convinced. That works in Google’s favor should it need to appeal any final decision it deems as too severe.
This case is far from over though. This first phase only dealt with the copyright issues. The second phase now underway addresses the patents, which could still go against Google. The final phase will deal with damages, but the severity of those penalties will be determined by what happens here in the first two phases.
While Oracle has won this first round, Google’s coming out a lot less bruised than it could have.