Google wins, Oracle loses: Java API case closed – for now

The monster court case between Oracle and Google over copyright in the Application Programming Interface (API) of Java has concluded.

Oracle sued Google, accusing the search giant’s Android platform of infringing the Java-related copyrights and patents that Oracle acquired when it bought Sun in late 2010.

Oracle lost; case closed.

The conclusions of the court, in a lawsuit described in the judgment as “the first of the so-called ‘smartphone war’ cases tried [in front of] a jury”, seem clear enough. As clear, at least, as judicial prose can be to a lay reader.

Briefly put, Oracle’s legal points seem to have been along these lines:

* Google didn’t copy Oracle’s code wholesale, but instead came up with its own implementations of the 37 Java API packages.

* Nevertheless, Google replicated the structure, sequence and organization of the overall code for those 37 API packages.

* The structure, sequence and organisation of those 37 API packages was copyrightable and thus Google infringed.

Taking Oracle’s side, you might think that the inventor of a programming environment should enjoy protection over the API itself. After all, isn’t the API part of the overall smarts of the system?

If you think of it as the entrance lobby of the building that is your codebase, then it’s part of the complete edifice and thus as much private property as the corridors and offices themselves.

Taking Google’s side, though, you might argue the other way around. The API isn’t a strictly-private entrance lobby, but the public-facing doorway into the building: the part which actually opens onto the street.

The invention is the codebase represented by the building into which the doorway opens, not the doorway and the street frontage itself.

The judgment takes the latter viewpoint:

So long as the specific code used to implement a method is different, anyone is free under the Copyright Act to write his or her own code to carry out exactly the same function or specification of any methods used in the Java API. It does not matter that the declaration or method header lines are identical. Under the rules of Java, they *must be identical* to declare a method specifying the same functionality - even when the implementation is different.

When there is only one way to express an idea or function, then everyone is free to do so and no one can monopolize that expression. And, while the Android method and class names could have been different from the names of their counterparts in Java and still have worked, copyright protection never extends to names or short phrases as a matter of law.

Independent developers will no doubt welcome this judgment.

After all, if you’re a software vendor trying to grow your business, persuading programmers to learn and write code for your API is what it’s all about. The more clients who can connect to your service, the better. But once you’ve grown your business, there’s something unappealing about being able to use the API alone to keep your clients locked in to your implementation.

Having someone rip off your implementation is clearly unacceptable. But being able to coast along with your current codebase whilst locking out competition doesn’t really help anyone.

As long as independent software developers are free to challenge you by “building a better mousetrap” – one which is not a clone or a copy, but which does the same tasks in a better way – then you’ll be under some sort of commercial pressure to continue to improve your own codebase.

If nothing else, this sort of pressure is good for security.

The proliferation and commercialisation of vulnerabilities and exploits over the past few years – sometimes in code which has been around for ages – gives weight to the argument that no widespread software system should ever be left unmaintained and unimproved.

PS. Remember I said “case closed” above? For now, at any rate, the battle is over. According to The Verge, however, war remains declared:

* Google. “The court’s decision…[represents] a good day for collaboration and innovation.”

* Oracle. “This ruling, if permitted to stand, would undermine the protection for innovation and invention.”

So an appeal seems likely. Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if even a fraction of those lawyerly costs were spent on security and privacy instead?