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Fair-use defense fails in Oracle vs. Google Android lawsuit
A final appeal in the Oracle vs. Google Android lawsuit has come down against Alphabet Inc., asserting its use of Java APIs did not constitute fair use.
The enduring saga of the Oracle vs. Google Android lawsuit is over, and the winner is the database giant.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has ruled Google's use of Java APIs in its Android operating system violated Oracle's copyright on the language, and the violation did not meet the standard of permissible fair use. The only thing left to figure out is how much to award in damages.
Copyright and the Android lawsuit
Throughout its history, the Oracle vs. Google battle pivoted several times on legal and technical questions that caused consternation in both domains.
One ongoing question that continues to stir debate is whether or not an API is copyrightable at all. The first jury trial asserted they were; an appeals court determined they were not. A final appeal determined a programming API can indeed be copyright-protected.
TheServerSide always took the editorial position that APIs are a creative work and should be subject to copyright. In the end, that stance has proven to be the correct legal position -- but one that has been unpopular with readers.
Permissible fair use?
With the copyright question settled, the Oracle vs. Google Android lawsuit then hinged on whether the 37 Java packages Google copied constituted fair use or not. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) decided in favor of Oracle, dismissing Google's use of the defense.
We conclude that Google's use of the 37 Java API packages was not fair as a matter of law. We therefore reverse the district court's decisions denying Oracle's motions for Judgement as a matter of law and remand for a trial on damages.
Oracle vs. Google Appeals Court Decision, page 55
The fundamentals of fair use
Oracle vs. Google Appeals Court Decisionpage 54
In determining whether the plundering of another entity's copyrighted material constitutes fair use, four key factors are evaluated:
- Is the use of a commercial nature?
- What is the nature of the use?
- How much is used, and how substantial is the portion used?
- What is the effect upon the market?
In its defense, Google asserted Android wasn't commercial because it had an open source license. Google argued only a few thousand lines of code were copied from a code base of millions and that Oracle hardly suffered, because it never had much of a presence in the smartphone market to begin with. The court paid very little heed to these arguments. In addressing these four factors, the court asserted:
(1) the purpose and character of Google's use was purely for commercial purposes; (2) the nature of Oracle's work is highly creative; (3) Google copied 11,330 more lines of code than necessary to write in a Java language-based program; and (4) Oracle's customers stopped licensing Java SE and switched to Android because Google provided free access to it.
Oracle vs. Google Appeals Court Decision, page 17
The end of Oracle vs. Google
It was not the CAFC's job to determine damages in this case, but only whether to reject the appeal or not, so there is no word on how severely this will hit Google's bottom line. Back in 2012, it was suggested that damages, if awarded, would be in the $6 billion range. At the outset of this appeal, Oracle was said to be asking for something in the range of $8 billion to $9 billion dollars.
Having said that, Google has asserted that only $42 million dollars in earnings can be attributed to the success of the Android operating system. So, if that $42 million number is used as a basis for calculating damages, the final bill may not be quite as astronomical as what Oracle has asked. But regardless of the final numbers, there is a lesson to be learned here, which was very eloquently summed up in the CAFC's written verdict in the Oracle vs. Google Android lawsuit:
"There is nothing fair about taking a copyrighted work verbatim and using it for the same purpose and function as the original in a competing platform."
Nothing fair, indeed.