On Thursday, Google’s long protracted battle with Oracle ended in Google’s favor when a jury of 10 people found in Google’s favor.
The details of Oracle v. Google go all the way back to 2010, when Oracle filed suit against Google, arguing that when Google developed Android, it infringed on Google’s Java-related intellectual property.
Java, which serves as the basis for a large chunk of Android and Oracle (which bought Sun — the company that developed Java — in 2009) sued Google on those grounds. In 2012, a jury found that Google had infringed on Oracle’s copyright, but deadlocked on the issue of whether that infringement constituted fair use. A trial court judge then ruled in Google’s favor on both the issue of copyright and the question of fair use.
Then in 2014, that decision was partially reversed in the court of appeals for the federal circuit. The court ruled that Oracle did have copyright over the Java APIs but said the question of whether the usage of those APIs was fair use or not would have to be decided by a district court.
And now that district court – by way of a jury – has found in Google’s favor, ruling that the Java APIs used when developing Android were done in fair use.
This was a big case, not just because Oracle was seeking upwards of $9 billion in damages, but because of the implications a ruling in favor or Oracle could have had.
Oracle has already vowed to appeal
To be clear, the battle is not over because Oracle has already vowed to appeal.
In a statement, Oracle’s general counsel Dorian Daley said:
We strongly believe that Google developed Android by illegally copying core Java technology to rush into the mobile device market. Oracle brought this lawsuit to put a stop to Google’s illegal behavior. We believe there are numerous grounds for appeal and we plan to bring this case back to the Federal Circuit on appeal.
Still, this second victory on the fair use claim is good news for Google and for developers in general.
Why this matters
From the outside looking in, you might wonder why any of this matters at all. After all, it looks like a giant tit-for-tat between two multi-billion dollar companies.
But there are much broader issues at stake that cut to the heart of how software is developed that go far beyond Google v. Oracle.
For decades, developers have reverse-engineered programming languages or used APIs from others in their own implementations. And although the appeals court ruling that APIs could be copyrighted could scare some developers off from using the works of others, the fact that a jury now says that even with that copyright, simply using some of those APIs in your own work is OK.
It is important to know that fair use arguments are often made on a case-by-case basis, which means that Thursday’s verdict won’t necessarily have any impact on future cases.
But had a reverse judgment come in, the situation could be very different. In its excellent explainer of the Google v. Oracle dispute, Vox cites Samba, an open source project designed nearly 20 years ago to help non-Windows operating systems connect to Windows files shares.
Samba was created without using any of Microsoft’s code but because it reverse-engineered its API, the federal circuit’s earlier ruling could make the project guilty of copyright infringement.
The good news is that the next generation of programming languages (like Google’s Go and Apple’s Swift) were written with permissive open source licenses that ensure there won’t be copyright issues in the future.
But even as this phase of Oracle v. Google ends, the question of copyright and software continues.
For now at least, Android is free.