Oracle’s claim that Google unlawfully copied certain Java code owned by Oracle was dismissed in a sound court order written by Judge William Alsup, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, Case No. 3:10-cv-03561-WHA, Document 1202, Filed 05/31/12.
Judge Alsup’s programming experience shows. The decision is a good read for programmers, developers and others in the software industry. There was no prior case law directly on point for this particular copyright issue. The decision helps clarify the scope and extent of legal protection for copyright claims based on the structure, sequence and organization of computer code.
Oracle claimed that the Android software platform for mobile devices violated its copyrights because Google unlawfully copied 37 Java application programming interfaces (“APIs”). Oracle presented no evidence of literal copying by Google of any computer code. Apparently there was no such evidence. Oracle relied on the claim that Google unlawfully copied the “structure, sequence and organization” of the APIs. Of the 166 Java packages, 129 were not violated in any way. Of the 37 accused infringing packages, 97 percent of the Android lines were new from Google and the remaining three percent were freely replicable under the legal doctrines known as merger and names. Thus, Oracle had to resort to claiming that it owned, by copyright, the exclusive right to any and all possible implementations of the command structure for the 166 packages even though it copyrighted only one implementation. If upheld, Oracle’s claim would have allowed anyone to copyright one version of code to carry out a system of commands, and thus preclude all others from writing their own different versions to carry out all or part of the same commands. It appears that no such broad and sweeping claim has ever been upheld under U.S. Copyright law.
The summary of the decision provides:
“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.”
The court applied several copyright law principles to reach its conclusion. When there is only one (or only a few) ways to express something, then no one can claim ownership of such expression by copyright, known as the merger doctrine. Copyright protection never extends to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation or concept regardless of its form. Functional elements essential for interoperability are not copyrightable. Copyright law does not protect names, titles, or short phrases or expressions, which is called the “names doctrine.” Even if a name, title, or short phrase is novel or distinctive, or lends itself to a play on words, it cannot be protected by copyright.
The court was careful however to point out that in the Ninth Circuit (the federal courts for the western U.S.), the structure, sequence and organization of a computer program may, or may not, qualify as a protectable element depending on the “particular facts of each case” and always subject to exclusion of elements that are not protectable.
The court’s order does not hold that Java API packages are free for all to use without license. It does not hold that the structure, sequence and organization of all computer programs may be stolen. Rather, it holds based on the specific facts of this case, the particular elements replicated by Google were free for all to use under the U.S. Copyright Act.