Google Gives Oracle a Tutorial on API Copyright Law

For the past year Oracle and Google have been locked in high-profile dispute over Oracle’s rights to the APIs in the Java Virtual Machine. Oracle asserts that Google’s Android operating system infringes on JVM patents and copyrights that Oracle inherited as part of its 2009 acquisition of Sun. At the time of the acquisition, the open source community was concerned about Oracle owning MySQL, not Java. Java was flagged by the European Union. As a Wikileaks cable showed last week, the U.S. Government leaped to Oracle’s assistance in persuading the E.U. regulators to permit Oracle’s acquisition of Sun. Fast forward two years to a new owner of Java — an Oracle more hostile to open source than Sun and whose only competitor to Java is the Microsoft .NET Framework.

API Copyright of JVM

“All can see the tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.”
— Sun Tzu

At this stage of the copyright litigation in Oracle v Google, Oracle needs to demonstrate to Judge William Alsup that there is a “genuine issue of fact” whether Android infringes the Java Virtual Machine APIs. That’s enough to get Oracle’s copyright case in front of a jury. To get the copyright issue thrown out before trial, Google must rebut the arguments that Oracle has presented. Addressing each specific fact, Google’s Reply last week offers an exceptionally detailed and clear tutorial on API copyright law. A legal monograph published by Professor Efthimios Parasidis in 2005 provides a similar analysis.

There are two possible outcomes to the copyright claims of Oracle: Android infringes the Java APIs or it doesn’t. It may appeal the partial summary judgement on the copyright issue once there is a final judgment on the rest of the case. If Judge Alsup rules in favor of Oracle, then the copyright infringement issue will be decided by a jury later this year.

Windows API Example

Google’s Reply makes a strong case against copyright protection of APIs. But there are additional examples where APIs were considered unprotectable. In the antitrust case against Microsoft, a U.S. District Court stated “Theoretically, the developer of a non-Microsoft, Intel-compatible PC operating system could circumvent the applications barrier to entry by cloning the APIs exposed by the 32-bit versions of Windows (Windows 9x and Windows NT).” The court went on to say “Applications written for Windows would then also run on the rival system, and consumers could use the rival system confident in that knowledge.” This is the same circumstance in which U.S District Court Judge Alsup finds Android.

API Copyright and the GPL

Oracle has made Android a target in spite of the fact that Oracle has little or no stake in mobile devices, now or on the horizon. The chief beneficiary of taking down Android would be Apple, chaired by Ellison’s friend Steve Jobs. It seems questionable whether the Oracle Board of Directors is providing oversight of this case, since it doesn’t appear to benefit Oracle shareholders. One wonders if Ellison has other goals in mind. Oracle might like to see the API copyright issue head to the U.S. Supreme Court. If so, losing may ultimately benefit Oracle, eliminating concerns about linking to Linux header files or the GNU Classpath, and taking the air out of vague GPL license terms that create extraordinary copyright hazards for software companies.

John Koenig is the founder of Compute Media and designer of The Patent Studio. You can follow him on Twitter @johnkoenig.