The long, winding journey of the legal dispute between Google and Oracle over whether Android's use of Java components constitutes fair use has taken another twist, as the federal appeals court on Friday overruled a lower court decision in favor of Google.
The US Court of Appeals decision (PDF) -- heard by a three-judge panel in Washington, DC, and written by Judge Kathleen O'Malley -- determined that District Judge William Alsup erred when ruling in favor of Google that APIs, which allow different software components to communicate with each other, were not copyrightable.
"...[W]e conclude that the declaring code and the structure, sequence, and organization of the API packages are entitled to copyright protection," O'Malley wrote. In reversing the district court's decision, the appeals court instructed the lower court to reinstate the jury's infringement finding for 37 Java application programming interface packages.
"The Federal Circuit's opinion is a win for Oracle and the entire software industry that relies on copyright protection to fuel innovation and ensure that developers are rewarded for their breakthroughs," said Dorian Daley, general counsel for Oracle. "We are confident that the district court will appropriately apply the fair use doctrine on remand, which is not intended to protect naked commercial exploitation of copyrighted material."
Google's official reaction was to sound a clarion call of concern.
"We're disappointed by this ruling, which sets a damaging precedent for computer science and software development, and are considering our options," Google said in a statement.
The implications of the decision are huge, said independent patent and copyright law analyst Florian Mueller at his blog Foss Patents. The case will return to the District Court for Northern California for a new trial on fair use and to determine damages.
"The question in a copyright case is, however, not whether the copyist had choices. It's whether the creator of the copied material had options," Mueller said. "And Sun's engineers (Java was developed by Sun, which was acquired by Oracle in 2010) had plenty of choices. The Java APIs were and are creative and original. And that's why they are protected."
James Grimmelmann, a copyright law professor at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, disagreed and echoed Google's call for concern.
"We had one of the most technically accurate opinions replaced by an opinion that doesn't really understand what an API is," he said.
"I think it's going to have a very chilling effect," Grimmelmann said. "It says that, among other things, that if you build an app for one platform, and the platform owner rescinds access, you face copyright risks if you move the app to a different platform."
The appeals court decision is the latest chapter in the lengthy patent and copyright battle that began when Oracle sued Google in 2010, alleging patent and copyright infringement over the use of Java APIs in the mobile operating system.
While the case goes back to trial to determine whether Google's use of Java APIs in Android is covered by fair use, and to calculate possible damages it owes to Oracle, Google's opportunities for recourse are few. Google can appeal to have the case re-heard by the entire federal appeals court bench, as opposed to just the three-judge panel that delivered today's ruling, or it can appeal to the US Supreme Court.
Neither appeal is guaranteed to be granted, said Grimmelmann, although the Supreme Court might be more likely because of its interest in resolving the conflict of opinion between two lower courts.
Update at 2:11 p.m. PST to add Google statement and additional background information.