Two years of copyright litigation by Oracle America Inc (Oracle) against Google Inc (Google) reached a milestone on May 31, 2012. Oracle had sought $1 billion in damages and an order that Google’s Android operating system (OS) be rewritten because of infringements of Oracle’s Java programming language. Judge William Alsup of the US District Court for the Northern District of California has ruled that no illegal infringement had occurred.
In general, software developers avoid copyright issues by developing new code that emulates features of copyrighted software. So long as the code is not identical, the features of copyrighted software can be mimicked by talented programmers. Oracle challenged this practice by alleging that the general structure and organization of portions of Android OS code that mimicked those of Java could constitute copyright infringement.
If such general structure were copyrightable, then the viability of many software development firms would be put at risk. Judge Alsup ruled against Oracle on this issue, holding that the US Copyright Act allows developers to mimic any function or specification of current code if they write their own code to do so. This ruling is expected to be challenged on appeal. The practice of mimicking software functions with new code is widespread in all aspects of software and services, on the Internet and offline.
A second issue centered on nine lines of code from over 15 million lines in total in the Android OS. This code was identical to and carried out the same function as the copyrighted code in Oracle’s Java. The court found that the function of these lines of code did not infringe any patents held by Oracle. Because of this, Oracle’s potential claim was reduced from $1 billion to several smaller penalties of $150,000.
A programmer himself, Judge Alsup learned some of the Java programming language under consideration so that he could better understand Oracle’s claims. This close familiarity with the subject matter may make it more difficult for his judgment to be overturned on appeal.
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Summary by: Ramin Wright