Developers will be impacted if the Supreme Court upholds that Java APIs can be copyrighted
The Oracle v. Google API copyright lawsuit has been dragging on since 2010. After last year’s surprise ruling from the Federal Circuit Appeals Court in favor of Oracle, Google is on the hook for roughly $9 billion USD of damages. Unsurprisingly, they’ve just appealed to the highest court in the US. But if the ruling stands, developers are going to be the ones to pay in the long run.
What’s the lawsuit about?
Google used 9 lines of code and 37 API names from Java for its Android operating system. Oracle has sued them for patent and copyright violation.
Java was initially developed by Sun Microsystems, which held the copyright. When Google developed their Android operating system, they utilized the same API names. At the time, they tried to get a license but ultimately, the deal fell apart. Instead, Google reverse-engineered their own APIs from scratch in a clean room implementation. However, the API names were the same, along with nine infamous lines of code.
Sun Microsystems wasn’t exactly happy about the lost revenue, but to their minds, Google hadn’t done anything wrong. The Java programming language was free; the APIs were not. By reverse-engineering their own APIs, Google had developed their way around having to pay a big fee. Besides, the Android OS was obviously a game changer for the Java community.
Everything changed when Oracle bought Sun Microsystems in 2009 and acquired the Java patent. Oracle saw a copyright violation and a lawsuit was filed in 2010.
Why has this case taken so long to decide?
The US court system is notoriously slow. Making things worse, it’s been tied up in appeals and retrials for nine years. Plus, it’s been bouncing between patent law and copyright law. We’ve kept track of the case that never ends here.
After wending its way back and forth, last year the Federal Circuit Appeals Court controversially ruled in favor of Oracle. Google currently owes Oracle roughly $9 billion USD in damages.
Google has just appealed the last Federal Court ruling to the US Supreme Court. The Court has thus far refused to hear arguments for this case in 2012 and in 2015. This is something of a last ditch appeal for Google.
What does the current Oracle ruling mean for developers?
Very few people in the developing game wants this decision to stand. If APIs can be copyrighted, then we all have a bunch of potential legal landmines hidden in our code. Oracle is jeopardizing the legal foundation for everyone who does business with shared APIs.
Last year, a number of interested parties filed a friend of the court brief, trying to explain how APIs are used in development, pointing out the importance of interoperability in software development.
Software development relies on open standards; it’s how we make sure our programs and libraries are compatible and work with different ecosystems developed by third parties. New projects need to be compatible with older software. Google argues that standardized software interfaces like APIs are necessary for continued innovation in software development.
The Federal Circuit’s Oracle ruling just put the kibosh on this. In particular, it means that there is a lot of software out there which is now possibly vulnerable to copyright infringements. If you use an API invented by a third party that isn’t explicitly open source, you could be at risk. Patent trolls are already a problem for software; imagine the added dimension of API patent trolls.
This ruling isn’t great for startups either. It’s an additional burden to smaller companies to rewrite their products for multiple incompatible standards. No one wants to go back to the balkanized era of software development.
As you might expect, we’ll be watching this appeal with great interest. If the Supreme Court does take this case, arguments will be heard in the fall of 2019. If not, then Google might owe Oracle a very large bill and developers might have to take a close look at their own code, lest they have a lawsuit on their own hands.