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Google could owe Oracle billions for the Java code in Android

In the Google vs Oracle appeal, a federal circuit court repealed the 2016 ruling that Google didn't owe Oracle anything for using Java in Android. Uh oh.

Published onMarch 27, 2018

  • A new ruling in a court of appeals reverses a 2016 ruling that Google doesn’t owe any money to Oracle for the use of Java code in Android.
  • This case has been going on for nearly a decade, and could have far-reaching implications should Google have to pay Oracle for the use of “free and open” Java APIs.
  • If it sticks, Oracle is looking for over $8 billion from Google.

The ongoing dispute between Oracle (the company that owns Java) and Google just took a new turn. An appeals court today reversed the previous 2016 decision that Google was in fair-use territory with using Java in Android, which now means that Google could owe Oracle billions of dollars. Will this case never end?

Google beats Oracle: Android is 'Fair Use'

For those of you just tuning into the epic drama that is the Oracle vs. Google case, you’ve missed out on a lot. Here’s a quick refresh:

  • Java was created by a team at Sun Microsystems.
  • Using Java APIs, developers can create new projects faster because they do not have to develop entirely new code. They can instead use Java APIs in a sort of cut-and-paste fashion, saving them time on grunt work and enabling them to focus more on innovation.
  • Sun Microsystems intended Java APIs to remain free and open for use by anyone, just like Android. In fact, Android uses plenty of Java code.
There's no dispute that Java APIs are in Android, but is it fair use?
  • In 2010, as Android was starting to gain popularity, Oracle acquired Java. Some theorize that the purchase was made specifically to sue Google, as Oracle began litigation against the company within eight months of the purchase.
  • In a case that dragged on for over five years, Oracle argued that developers “stole” Java APIs to use in Android. Google contended that Java APIs are free and open to the public, and the Java code in Android falls under fair-use since Android itself is also free and open to the public.
  • In May of 2016, after three hours of deliberation, a San Francisco jury sided with Google and agreed that the Java APIs used in Android were legal and Google is not at fault.
  • But with $8.8 billion on the line, Oracle was not ready to give up. As expected, the company appealed the decision.

Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled that Google did, in fact, violate Oracle’s copyrights in the Java platform. The case will now be pushed to a federal court in California to determine precisely how much Alphabet, Inc., Google’s parent company, should pay Oracle.

Why GPL violations are bad - Gary explains

The case has long been a divisive one in technology circles. Since the fundamental purpose of copyright is to encourage innovation, many feel that the Java APIs used in Android is a perfect example of innovation in action: a team took the free Java APIs and made something entirely new.

Is Android a perfect example of innovation in action, or one company stealing from another to make money?

Others feel that Java owns the APIs as copyrighted works, and the company must defend those copyrights. Sun co-founder Scott McNealy said that Java “is the foundation upon which our digital world is built and Google stole that foundation, used it to build Android, and destroyed Oracle’s market in the process.”

Regardless of which side of the issue you fall on, there’s no denying that this new turn in the case could have substantial ramifications for the technology industry. If Oracle can pick-and-choose which companies can or can’t use Java APIs, innovation will inevitably be stunted, if not just by the difficulty of using Java in the future, but of using any other system that is owned by a for-profit company but intended for free use.

What do you think? Are you happy with this decision, or does it make you worried about the future?

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