Google v Oracle lawsuit: All for 9 Lines of Code

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A slide shown by Oracle's lawyers to the jury in Oracle v. Google. Photo - Oracle/arstechnica.com

The patent wars between technology giants seems to have no end in sight.

In the latest ruling on Oracle v Google case, the jury has found that Google infringed on Oracle’s copyrights. The issue in contention was for nine lines of code and programming tools. As per the US law, these nine lines of code would be worth at least $150,000, which is peanuts for a company like Google, a $198 billion worth company as of today.

However, US District Judge William Alsup denied Oracle which is seeking $1 billion in damages from Google. Oracle alleged that Google infringed its copyright for developing Android software, which now runs on more than 300 million mobile devices around the world.

According to the copyright laws, anyone can use copyrighted work without consent of the owner if it advances the public interest by adding something new or functional. Google claims that the Java code it used “expanded the language’s usefulness by finding a way to build a smartphone operating system with Java, something Sun and Oracle were unable to do.”

But Oracle argues that Google did the modification of Java code for its own commercial benefit to increase use of Google’s search engine and added nothing new to Java. Google’s search engine is closely tied to its innovative online advertising model, which generates more than 96% of its total revenue.

Java is a free computer programming language. But, Oracle claims that the parts of Java that Google used are covered by copyrights and that the search engine company was required to pay for a license to use the technology.

Deborah Hellinger, an Oracle spokeswoman, said in an e-mail to Bloomberg: “The overwhelming evidence demonstrated that Google knew it needed a license. Every major commercial enterprise – except Google – has a license for Java and maintains compatibility to run across all computing platforms.”

Meanwhile, Google attorney Robert Van Nest asked Alsup to declare a mistrial, saying the issue of whether the company is liable for infringement is directly linked to the question of whether it was fair use.

The Core Issue: API’s

The ultimate question that still remains in the battle of the IT giants is on the copyright of APIs (Application Program Interface), which would have far reaching impact on the industry as a whole. Judge Alsup is expected to make a ruling on this issue soon. APIs are specifications that allow programs to communicate with each other.

So when you read an article online, and click on the icon to share that article via Twitter, for example, you are using a Twitter API that the site’s developer got directly from Twitter.)

Google spokesman Jim Prosser said in an e-mail to Bloomberg: “We appreciate the jury’s efforts, and know that fair use and infringement are two sides of the same coin. The core issue is whether the APIs here are copyrightable, and that’s for the court to decide. We expect to prevail on this issue and Oracle’s other claims.”

Industry expert Robert McMillan says that a ruling in favour of Oracle could change the way we all use the Internet.

“If APIs can be copy-protected, that would be incredibly destructive to the internet as a whole for so many different reasons,” says George Reese, Chief Technology Officer with enStratus Networks, a seller of cloud management services. “But with respect to cloud, in particular, it would put any company that has implemented the Amazon APIs at risk unless they have some kind of agreement with Amazon on those APIs.”

McMillan says that treating APIs as copyrightable would have a profound negative impact on interoperability, and, therefore, innovation. APIs are ubiquitous and fundamental to all kinds of program development.

Julie Samuels, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation who has been following the trial says that one thing that makes the issue particularly troubling for open source projects is the extremely long shelf life of copyrights. Patents expire after less than 20 years, but copyright would protect companies’ software APIs for 95 years from the date they were first published, she says.

Therefore, Julie says that treating APIs as copyrightable would have profound negative impact on interoperability, and, therefore, innovation. She rightly points out that that the developer of a platform should not be able to control add-on software development for that platform. According to EFF attorney, granting copyright protection to functional APIs would allow companies to dangerously hold up important interoperability functionality that developers and users rely on a daily basis.

Julie and many other tech analysts who are staunch opponents of copyrighting APIs see the recent EU ruling on software functionality copyrights as sign of what possibly the outcome would be in the US as well.

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