For the past six years, Oracle has pursued copyright and patent infringement claims against Google over the use of Java APIs within Android. The case has bounced around through multiple courts — the patent issues were resolved with zero damages, but the copyright claims were dismissed in favor of Google before a federal court reversed that verdict. Over the last few weeks, Oracle and Google have been tied up in court over whether or not Google’s use of the Java API could be considered fair use or not.
The trial has now concluded with a jury verdict in favor of Google, meaning that Google’s specific use of APIs in Android is considered fair use. Oracle, never formally declared how much money it would seek from Google if the verdict had gone the other way, but an expert report prepared for the case claimed $9.3 billion in damages.
The central issue of the trial was whether or not Google was legally required to license Java in order to use certain Java APIs — 37 in all — as part of Android. Google had initially argued that API’s weren’t copyrightable at all, since they represented functional code that’s often critical to ensuring interoperability between system components. Over the course of the trial, Google presented evidence showing that Sun, which created Java, had no problem with Google’s using it in Android, including testimony from Sun’s ex-CEO, Jonathan Schwartz. Oracle concentrated on the idea that Google’s use of Android had crippled Oracle’s ability to launch smartphones based on its own Java-based operating system, and that the search giant had unjustly enriched itself by not licensing Java.
Unfortunately, while this is a win for Google, it doesn’t answer the question of when exactly using an API is or isn’t fair use. The problem with fair use doctrine in the United States is that infringement is often in the eye of the beholder. Fair use is determined by the purpose and character of the use, including whether or not the use is transformative (parody and satire are typically found to be transformative). Fair use is also measured according to the nature of the original work, how much of the copyrighted work has been excerpted and used, and whether or not the use of the material impacts the ability of the original creator to profit from their work. To use a simple example, one cannot borrow the vast majority of material from one work, stuff it into a different book or film, and claim that this is protected under fair use doctrine.
While these rules create a useful framework for evaluating fair use, they don’t define how much of a work can be used for fair use to apply, or specify exact circumstances in which a usage is or is not fair. If Oracle had won its case against Google, it would have set a dangerous precedent. While the 37 APIs that Google used are critical to the overall function of Android, they represent a tiny fraction of Android’s total code base.
Oracle has, of course, already vowed to appeal the verdict, which means this case will still be winding its way through the court system several years from now. Google, meanwhile, is already planning to move away from Oracle’s Java and will use a new implementation based on OpenJDK.