Google Beats Oracle in $9.3 Billion Copyright Case

Android LogoA federal jury found that Google’s use of Oracle’s copyrighted software in Google’s Android operating system was protected as a “fair use” under US copyright law. As a result, Google escaped being hit with damages that could have reached $9.3 billion.

The damages sought were mainly based on the amount of money Google has earned from the Android operating system

Copyright Law

Copyright law protects “original works of authorship” – including software. The owner of a copyright in a work has the exclusive right to:

  • Reproduce the work
  • Prepare derivative works (such as translations, adaptions, and sequels)
  • Distribute copies of the work
  • Publicly perform the work (for example, perform a play or song)
  • Publicly display the work (for example, display a movie)

Anyone who does any of these things without the permission of the copyright owner is normally liable for copyright infringement. The copyright owner can claim damages for such infringement.

Fair Use

The “fair use” doctrine provides an exception to the exclusive rights of copyright owners. People (and companies) can copy, distribute, display, etc. a copyrighted work if they’re doing it for a reason, and in a way, that the law recognizes as valid.

Federal law (specifically, 17 U.S.C. § 107) lists the factors that courts look at to decide whether a use is “fair”:

  • The purpose and character of the use (For example, is it for profit or for an educational purpose?)
  • The nature of the copyrighted work. (Non-fiction and imaginative works, like novels, get more protection than factual works like encyclopedias.)
  • Amount and substantiality of the part of the copyrighted work that’s being used (Using one line of four-line poem is a bigger deal than using one paragraph of a 100-page book.)
  • Effect of the use on the market for the original work.

Fair use cases involve a balancing of these factors, and there’s no “bright line” test for what will and won’t be considered fair use.

The US Copyright Office has a useful database of fair use case law here.

Oracle vs. Google

Oracle sued Google in 2010, claiming that the code for the Android operating system illegally copied Oracle’s Java technology.

Specifically, Oracle claimed that Google used elements from its APIs. During his closing argument, Oracle’s attorney contended that it was “undisputed” that Google copied 11,500 lines of Oracle’s code.

APIs

An API is an “application programming interface.” It’s been described as a list of commands, as well as the format of those commands, that one computer program can send to another. It lets individual programs communicate with each other and use each other’s functions.

Oracle’s Java programming language is free for programmers to use. However, Oracle claimed that Google’s use of 37 Java API’s was copyright infringement.

Why It’s Important

According to Ars Technica, a win by Oracle could have led to a “sea change” in how software was developed.

As Wired commented,

The case is important because it helps clarify the copyright rules around what programmers can borrow for their own work. Programmers routinely borrow APIs from existing products either to ensure compatibility between products or simply to make it easier to learn a new product. An Oracle victory could have seriously curtailed that practice, hindering the creation of new software.

Oracle has vowed to appeal the jury’s decision.


(Photo Credit: “Android” by Saad Irfan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.)

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