The case, decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal
Circuit in Washington, is being closely watched in Silicon Valley. A
high-profile 2012 trial featured testimony from Oracle's chief
executive, Larry Ellison, and Google CEO Larry Page, and the legal
issues go to the heart of how tech companies protect their most
valuable intellectual property.
Google's Android operating system is the world's best-selling
smartphone platform. Oracle sued Google in 2010, claiming that
Google had improperly incorporated parts of Java into Android.
Oracle is seeking roughly $1 billion on its copyright claims.
A San Francisco federal judge had decided that Oracle could not
claim copyright protection on parts of Java, but on Friday the
three-judge Federal Circuit panel reversed that ruling.
"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," Federal Circuit Judge Kathleen O'Malley
Pamela Samuelson, a professor at University of California, Berkeley,
School of Law who wrote a brief supporting Google in the case, said
the Federal Circuit's decision means software companies now face
uncertainty in determining how to write interoperable computer
programs that do not violate copyright.
"What we have is a decision that will definitely shake up the
software industry," said Samuelson.
But Oracle attorney E. Joshua Rosenkranz said the law has always
been clear on these issues. "There's nothing at all astounding in
what the Federal Circuit did," he said.
NOT THE END OF LEGAL DISPUTE
The case examined whether computer language that connects programs -
known as application programming interfaces, or APIs - can be
copyrighted. At trial in San Francisco, Oracle said Google's Android
trampled on its rights to the structure of 37 Java APIs.
U.S. District Judge William Alsup ruled that the Java APIs
replicated by Google were not subject to copyright protection and
were free for all to use. The Federal Circuit disagreed on Friday,
ruled for Oracle and instructed the lower court to reinstate a
jury's finding of infringement as to 37 Java API packages.
"We find that the district court failed to distinguish between the
threshold question of what is copyrightable — which presents a low
bar — and the scope of conduct that constitutes infringing
activity," O'Malley wrote.
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The unanimous Federal Circuit panel ordered further proceedings
before Alsup to decide whether Google's actions were protected under
Programmers could still craft interoperable programs if the opinion
stands, but lawyers will have to be more involved in signing off on
what is permissible, said Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara
University School of Law.
"That's really expensive and lawyers are not going to give yes or no
answers, and that's going to be stressful for everybody," Goldman
Google had argued that software should only be allowed to be
patented, not copyrighted. However, O'Malley wrote that the Federal
Circuit is bound to respect copyright protection for software,
"until either the Supreme Court or Congress tells us otherwise."
Oracle General Counsel Dorian Daley called the decision a "win" for
an industry "that relies on copyright protection to fuel
innovation." Google said it set a "damaging precedent for computer
science and software development" and was considering its options.
The case in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit is
Oracle America Inc vs. Google Inc, 13-1021.
(Editing by Nick Zieminski and Matthew Lewis)
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