Google v Oracle Verdict In - But Future Still Unclear
Written by Mike James
Tuesday, 08 May 2012
The jury has made a decision in the Oracle v Google trial, but it isn't a particularly helpful verdict. It agreed that Google had infringed Oracle's copyright, but essentially only in using nine lines of one function.
The jury were told by the judge to assume that the Java API was copyrightable - in the light of that directive it is hardly surprising that they decided that Google had infringed the copyright of the 37 APIs.
This sounds like a definite result, until you remember that the judge has to rule later in the trial if the APIs really are copyrightable or not. The decision relates to the question about the fair use of the API - the jury couldn't decide.
Without a decision on fair use we basically have no new information.
Of the three specific copyright infringements the jury was asked to decide, only one was a "yes":
Has Oracle proven that Google's conceded use of the following was infringing:
(A) the rangeCheck method in the TimSort class
(B) the seven Impl files and ACL file
(C) the comments in CodeSourceTest and CollectionCertStoreParametersTest?
Of these the jury decided that Google had used the nine lines of code in rangeCheck and hence infringed Oracle's copyright, but given Google removed the lines and said sorry it doesn't seem like a big issue.
The final decision is perhaps more interesting. The jury was asked if Google had proved that Sun/Oracle had led them to believe it didn't need a licence and the answer was "yes". The second part of the question asked if Google relied on this in making use of copyright. Surprisingly the answer the jury gave is "no". Meaning that it believed that Google had multiple reasons for not asking for a licence, not just that Oracle/Sun gave the impression there was no need for one in this case.
So which side is this decision good for?
It is good for Oracle in that the jury stated that Google infringed its copyright - if such a copyright exists.
It is good for Google in that the jury stated that Oracle/Sun gave the impression it didn't need one.
It is good for neither party in that the jury didn't rule on fair use and so the importance of the copyright infringement is still unknown. You also have to remember that all of this depends on APIs being copyrightable in the first place.
According to Groklaw, the verdict was a victory for Google because it has reduced the potential damages as the copyright infringement extends to only nine lines of code which Oracle didn't include in the damages report.
What matters to the wider developer community is the question of whether or not APIs are copyrightable. The law in the EU has concluded that programming languages are not copyrightable, let alone APIs. However, in the US there are precedents that APIs are copyrightable and as such we have been living with the state of affairs that so many are worried about for some time. It seems that we are all free to use APIs only because the copyright owners don't bother to sue!
The trial now moves on to the question of whether or not Google infringed Oracle's patents.
In both matters the law may not be an ass but it certainly is a mess.