Oracle v. Google, $1 Billion On the Line
After a federal appellate court overturned a ruling where Google had emerged victorious over Oracle, both may be headed to the United States Supreme Court in the near future. Google officially filed its request with the nation’s highest court last week, reported Reuters. The original suit began four years ago, with Oracle seeking $1 billion in damages for its copyright claims against Google.Many developers think this copyright infringement case could have a substantial impact on their ability to innovate in software. The conflict emerged when Oracle accused Google of infringing both patents and copyrights related to Java, Oracle’s computer programming language, in its Android Mobile OS (operating system). The nuts and bolts of Oracle’s claim is that Google copied the structure and organization of the Java APIs (application programming interfaces), so that computer programmers and developers who were already familiar with Java would find it easier to write programs for Android. After the appellate court’s ruling, Google filed a petition for a writ of certiorari in which it warned the justices that assigning copyright to APIs, which enable computer programs to talk to one another, sets a dangerous precedent. If the Supreme Court does not overturn the ruling, Google argues that early computer companies could have stifled vast amounts of technological development by claiming century- long copyright monopolies over the most basic building blocks of computer programming.
US District Court Judge William Alsup overwhelmingly sided with Google in 2012, declaring that the code in question could not be copyrighted. While admitting that the company that produced Android, the most widely used mobile operating system in the world, could have rearranged various groupings and packages within the code itself, the judge said that duplication of the command structure is simply necessary for interoperability. However, the federal appellate court reversed saying that the structure, sequence, and organization of API packages are all entitled to copyright protection.
Google has analogized the appellate court’s decision with one that would have allowed the Remington typewriter to block all other typewriter manufacturers from using the QWERTY keyboard layout that we have all come to be familiar with, due to the fact that it is the only keyboard layout used in the United States. Google stated, “That design was original and creative, but Remington was not entitled to appropriate the investments made by others in learning how to use it. Otherwise, Remington could have monopolized not only the sale of its patented typewriters for the length of a patent term, but also the sale of all keyboards for nearly a century. This begs a question about where infringement begins when the “first” of a type of product is first joined by a competitor. When Remington patented his typewriter, why didn’t he patent the QWERTY keyboard setup? Did he think it illogical to patent the layout knowing that, since his was the first typewriter on the market, people would forever be discouraged from buying other brands because they would have to get used to typing on a whole different keyboard layout? Or was it such a basic, functional, structural design that he didn’t think about patenting it specifically?
It looks like the dispute will be far from over, even if the Supreme Court declines to accept the petition. The appellate court left undecided whether Google might actually be monetarily liable for what they have deemed to be infringement. The case has been sent back to Alsup and the district court to decide whether or not Google had a “fair use” right to infringe. Historically, there has been no clear answer from the federal courts as to what actually constitutes “fair use,” and has always been decided on a case – by – case basis.