When Oracle bought Sun Microsystems, they acquired Java, Sun's popular programming language, pitched from its inception as an open standard for the networked computer.
Oracle sued Google for implementing the Java API without a license, though implementing APIs without a license is a practice that's literally as old as APIs themselves. If you need permission to implement an API, then programming, product design, and computer science as we understand them are all at risk.
A court agreed, telling Oracle that APIs — the labels used for programming commands — were not copyrightable, but Oracle appealed and the appeals court handed down a disastrous ruling, stating that APIs were subject to copyright.
So Oracle and Google went back to court, this time litigating the question: if APIs are copyrighted, then does implementing an API violate that copyright, or is it fair use?
In a nailbiting jury trial, legal and technical experts spoke at length on both sides of the question, until, finally, today, the jury deliberated and unanimously concluded that Google's implementation the Java API was fair use, and they don't owe Oracle a penny.
This is a bitter victory. Fair use is "fact intensive": the fact that this API implementation was found to be fair use bodes well for future API implementations, but that's not certainty. Oracle has set a precedent that earned it nothing, but has cast doubt on the entire enterprise of software development, possibly forever.
Naturally, Oracle is appealing.
Still, the fair use victory is bittersweet. Judge William Alsup's previous opinion that the API labels in question are not copyrightable was the correct one, based on a reasonable reading of the copyright law in question. The Federal Circuit decision to reverse that opinion was not just wrong but dangerous. While developers of interoperable software can take some comfort in the fact that reimplementation may be fair use, a simpler and fairer solution would simply have been to recognize API labels as a system or method of operation not restricted by copyright.
The case is not yet closed. Oracle has announced that it will appeal the decision—at which point it will go back to the Federal Circuit, with a reported $9 billion still on the line. Should that appeal happen, the appeals court should at least partially redeem itself by respecting this jury's finding and leaving this important fair use victory intact.
EFF Applauds Jury Verdict In Favor of Fair Use in Oracle v. Google
(via di-logo-java-orange, Silveira Neto, CC-BY-SA)