Today, the 10 person jury in Oracle v. Google has unanimously ruled that Google did not infringe upon Oracle patents when developing the Android operating system. Although Android has been consistently outpaced in revenue by the iOS system from Apple, it still powers many popular phones and has garnered a significant fan base. The original suit against Google was brought in 2010, and included claims of infringement on 7 different patents, although this number was revised to only 2. Oracle acquired the patents – written in the near ubiquitous Java programming language – when it bought Sun Microsystems in 2010. Fans of Google and Android as well as proponents of open source software have been celebrating the verdict since it was announced. The open source movement is passionate and often outspoken about the philosophy that software should be available for use and modification, rather than the inaccessible property of a single entity. However, the patents in question are worth much less than the 37 Java APIs, or application programming interfaces, that were ruled on earlier this month.
The jury is still divided on whether or not Google’s use of Java APIs was an instance of fair use, although they did decide that Google had indeed violated copyright law. Response to this part of the case was also a mixed bag. It is understandable that Oracle would seek financial recompense for unauthorized use of a product which it owns, especially when said use has been lucrative for Google. However, the aggressive litigation which Oracle has pursued against Google runs directly counter to actions the Sun took starting in 2006 to make all of Java open source. Another issue is the fundamental nature of what an API is. In the most simplistic terms, an API can be described as a listing and description of the contents of a program. Such a list allows software components to communicate and interact with each other without having to tinker with the source code of a program. It can often be much more difficult to develop an API than write a program. For something to be “copyright-able,” it must be expressive, not just functional. A strong argument can be made that APIs are the pinnacle of functionality, and thus IP protection would fall under the realm of patents rather than copyrights. Various organizations, including the EFF, take a very dim view of allowing APIs to have copyright protection – they say it would seriously compromise interoperability and quash software innovation.
In conclusion, there is more at stake here than the amount of monetary damages that Oracle will receive (although this number potentially has gotten dramatically smaller, decreasing from a whopping $6 billion that Oracle said it was due to a mere $150,000). There are also thorny clashes of culture, philosophy, and politics, and the future of software.