Skip Page Banner  
Skip Navigation

Oracle Loses to Google Again as Calif. Court Rules Java APIs Have No Copyright Protection

Wednesday, June 13, 2012
By Tony Dutra



  • Case Summary: Oracle loses a significant battle in seeking copyright protection for Java software against Google and Android-based mobile phones.

  • Key Takeaway: The 'structure, sequence, and organization' of Java application programming interface packages does not make Java eligible for copyright protection.


Oracle's attempt to share in Android mobile phone revenues because of the phones' underlying software code was dealt its most severe blow yet May 31, as the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled that Java application programming interfaces are not eligible for copyright protection (Oracle America Inc. v. Google Inc., N.D. Cal., No. 3:10-cv-03561-WHA, 5/31/12).

While the focus in the case has been on the potential for huge royalty payments if Oracle were to succeed, Judge William Alsup's order could have implications for intellectual property in software products generally.

Alsup held that Oracle's Java APIs constitute “a utilitarian and functional set of symbols, each to carry out a pre-assigned function.” Their “structure, sequence, and organization”--the basis for Oracle's copyright argument as to code not literally copied by Google--thus is equivalent to “a system or method of operation under Section 102(b) of the Copyright Act and, therefore, cannot be copyrighted,” the court said.

While the court limited its judgment to the facts of the case, most API packages offered for license follow the same basic rules as to structure, sequence, and organization.

The holding relates to companies like Google Inc. that seek to replicate the APIs. Those who want to use the functions in Java API packages are still subject to licensing requirements, the court said.

Google Offers Java Compatibility.
Sun Microsystems Inc. created the Java “write once, run anywhere” (WORA) platform in 1996. The platform includes multiple components, including both human-readable software code and computer-readable, predefined functions.

The application programming interfaces (APIs) at question in this case are intended to implement the WORA concept. Any programmer can create other software on any device using a variety of operating systems and use the functions available in the APIs. The programmer does not have to know how the API code is written, but the programmer must use specific naming conventions and “header” information to take advantage of the API functions.

Google Inc. negotiated for a license from Sun to use the entire Java platform as Google started to build its Android operating system for mobile phones, but the parties were unable to reach a deal.

Google consequently developed and implemented its own platform with its own code, but also sought to replicate support for over 6,000 functions available in 37 specific Java API “packages.” That is, Google wanted Android application programmers to take advantage of the Java WORA concept. Because Google thus had to use the Java naming conventions and headers, 3 percent of its code had to match the code in the Java APIs that Sun was licensing.

Oracle Corp. acquired Sun in 2010 and renamed the subsidiary Oracle America Inc. Oracle then sued Google in the Northern California district court.

Oracle claimed both copyright and patent infringement by the Android operating system of Java software and functionality.

Alsup split up the case so that a jury would rule on copyright issues first, then patent issues, and finally damages.

In the first part of the case, Alsup told the jury to assume the APIs were copyrighted. Google agreed that it uses the same names and declarations but contended that its line-by-line implementations are different, with the exception of nine lines of code on a “rangeCheck” function, a contention not disputed by Oracle.

The jury on May 7 returned a split verdict, finding that Google infringed by literally copying the rangeCheck code, but it did not answer the key question of whether there was a fair use (89 PTD, 5/9/12).

Then on May 23 the jury determined that Oracle America Inc. failed to prove Google's infringement of patents (RE38,104 and 6,061,520) on the Java operating system by Android-based cell phones(100 PTD, 5/24/12).

Structure, Sequence, Organization at Issue.
In his May 31 decision, Alsup now addressed the underlying question of the extent to which the Java APIs could be copyrighted so as to capture infringement even as to code that Google did not literally copy.

Oracle conceded that Google was free to use the Java programming language and implement the 6,000 individual functions.

“The copyright issue, rather,” the court said, “is whether Google was and remains free to replicate the names, organization of those names, and functionality of 37 out of 166 packages in the Java API, which has sometimes been referred to in this litigation as the 'structure, sequence and organization' of the 37 packages.”

The court therefore focused on the 3 percent of code that replicated the naming and header requirements for Java compatibility in the context of the structure, sequence, and organization (SSO) of the 37 API packages.

The court first noted that names, titles, and short phrases are not copyrightable, according to the Copyright Office's rule specified in 37 C.F.R. §202.1(a) and Ninth Circuit law, in Sega Enterprises Ltd. v. Accolade Inc., 977 F.2d 1510, 1524 n.7, 24 USPQ2d 1561 (9th Cir. 1992).

The court then addressed the idea of SSO for owners of copyrights generally:

This phrase--structure, sequence and organization--does not appear in the Act or its legislative history. It is a phrase that crept into use to describe a residual property right where literal copying was absent. A question then arises whether the copyright holder is more appropriately asserting an exclusive right to a functional system, process, or method of operation that belongs in the realm of patents, not copyrights.

'Methods of Operation' Distinguished.
The court quoted extensively from the 1879 U.S. Supreme Court decision distinguishing “methods” from creative works and establishing the “merger doctrine” in Baker v. Seldon, 101 U.S. 99 (1879). “It is true that Baker is aged but it is not pass

To view additional stories from Bloomberg Law® request a demo now