Federal Circuit sets off anger in Oracle victory over Google

by: William Neilson JrMay 11, 2014

Oracle vs Google Logo

Several years ago, Oracle sued Google, arguing that Google’s Android operating system infringed the copyright of Oracle’s Java technology by including a list of Java functions that constituted a creative work with the same names and structures.

In 2012, San Francisco-based U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup ruled that the APIs are not covered by copyright law because they are a “functional requirement for writing compatible applications, not creative works.”

Then last week, the United States Court of Appeals for Federal Circuit decided that Oracle could copyright parts of the Java programming language (API), which Google uses to develop its Android smartphone operating system. The appeals court made a clear distinction between the Java programming language and the APIs, and found that only three of the Java APIs in question are basically part of the Java language. This is a significant case relevant to all IT intellectual property. Complicating the matter is the fact that the Java programming language itself is open source and free to the public to use.

On Friday, Federal Circuit Judge Kathleen O’Malley wrote:

“We conclude that a set of commands to instruct a computer to carry out desired operations may contain expression that is eligible for copyright protection,”

In the Federal Circuit’s view, the list of Java functions was just another kind of “code” that couldn’t be copied without its creator’s permission. APIs allow third-party services to pull information automatically from central services like social networks (Google/Facebook/Twitter).

The ruling now allows software companies copyright over their APIs, the interfaces that programs use to communicate with each other. This decision is disastrous for software developers that want to build on top of APIs. If the APIs are no longer free to use, new services may be forced to start from scratch, making it astronomically more difficult to coordinate between programs.

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This ruling has set commentators hair on fire:

“This is an opinion written by judges whose understanding of software comes from reading other judges’ opinions about software.” – University of Maryland professor James Grimmelmann.

“The decision seems to reflect a fundamental lack of understanding of how software works. And it could create serious headaches for companies that want to make their software compatible with that of competitors.” – Timothy B. Lee, Vox.com.

“Not only do they not understand how computers work, they can’t even read,” says James Grimmelmann, a copyright scholar at the University of Maryland. 

As law professor James Grimmelmann notes:


If the Federal Circuit’s precedent isn’t overturned and the vague language stands, frivolous litigation will more than likely ensue. Companies will be consistently suing former employees if they go to a new job and write new code, even from scratch, since that code could possibly be similar enough to the old code and therefore triggering copyright liability.

Bryan Cantrill, the CTO at cloud provider Joyent, recently called out Oracle for doing to him what they are suing Google for in court. Cantrell works on an open-source version of the Solaris operating system, and he noted that Oracle copied some of his APIs into its Oracle Solaris product without permission. Cantrill says he would never sue Oracle over API copyright because “the principle itself is wrong.”

Ok, who is excited about how the future of technology based on the precedent that is being set for the entire software industry? In addition to programmers being forced to craft interoperable programs from absolute scratch if the opinion stands, we know will get to have a number of lawyers will have to be more involved in signing off on what is permissible:

“That’s really expensive and lawyers are not going to give yes or no answers, and that’s going to be stressful for everybody,” said Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law.

Apparently, Oracle believes that this will somehow help innovation while just about everyone else realizes that this simply drives innovation in the exact opposite direction. Then again, people like Florian Mueller (whom I respect and enjoy reading) agrees with the Federal Circuit decision and lays the blame on Google not going to Congress before going to Court (amongst many other things).

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Google is almost certain to appeal the ruling. The ruling could be re-heard by a broader panel of Federal Circuit judges or reviewed by the Supreme Court.

  • Keith Ho

    These judges are just plain and simple government workers. They don’t educate themselves to understand how the private industry work. Therefore, we have laws that don’t benefit the consumers and does harm to the economy.

    • Aniruddh

      The damned system should educate these fools, really.
      I am not completely sure how the system works, but instead of putting some 60-year old fool who almost certainly has had little to no contacts with computers, let alone programming, they should maybe hire experienced software developers. Now since I don’t know how the US system works, so this may be completely impractical.

      • Guantaco

        So letting someone with no background in law proceedings but an understanding of some programming will help with law desicions. People and their stupid comments. A judge isn’t just one day made a judge with no understanding of law and litigation. They have to be very intelligent because of the different cases they must hear and preside over.
        So maybe it depends on those people arguing their case to a judge on why they are right and the other side is wrong. If Google doesn’t have a lawyer who can argue in their behalf then could that be the problem. That’s how legal systems work, if you don’t have someone who can make a good case then the someone is not doing their side. Nothing to do with technology knowledge of a judge.

      • paxmos

        “Now since I don’t know how the US system works”….It doesn’t work very well as you can see.

  • Kelly

    Our tax dollars at work!

  • David Brauss

    The courts understand perfectly what they are doing. Judges, formerly attorneys, are like Mr. Zorg ensuring job security in the form of lawsuits for years and years to come.

  • MasterMuffin

    It will be appealed again and again and we’ll maybe hear the final results in 2018 :)

  • DonnaPBateman

    In 2012, San Francisco-based U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup ruled that the APIs are not covered by copyright law because they are a “functional requirement for writing compatible applications, not creative works.” http://qr.net/yNRI

  • Guest123

    Sure is easy to spot the patent trolls in that image.

  • Guest123

    “Then again, people like Florian Mueller (whom I respect and enjoy reading)”

    Really?????? He’s a known shill, and as biased as you get.

  • Groud Frank

    The American Lethal System. That was not a typo.

  • Tran Nguyen

    All of them are fucking up who wants to share the pieces of cake. Looking at the diagram above, they had spent too much of money for the lawyers, wasted money to the tax payers and added the sum of the production cost. Who would be the last winner of the interchangeable API copyright? NOBODY WIN BUT EVERYBODY LOST MONEY.

  • Dave White

    The taxpayers and users loose on this while the lawyers get the money that is the only people who win in this..

  • paxmos

    nowadays, laws are like old women, you can’t get anything beneficial out of them!!

  • Timothy Anderson

    If you copyright an API, something that is meant to be shared for interoperability, you have really set a confusing and serious precedent for all software, even open source. This simply cannot be. We would have difficulty having any meaningful standards for anything. Come on! nobody is that stupid.

  • Magnetic1

    If the API was so important that without it it would create such a big headache, then there is money to be made. People will pay to use the api instead of writing it from scratch.

  • OleBrom

    Back to C and GWbasic.

  • Gator352

    When the dumb-ass judges pick up their smartphone one day and find out that they can no longer tweet, text, facebook, open up thier favorite cloud based site…..then get on thier PC and no longer open PDF’s for cases, cloud print forms, look at naked pics of their intern, they’ll be screaming WTF did we just do??!!??

  • michaelhall

    Jesus Christ…