A federal judge ruled this month that it was “reasonable” for a jury to find the company’s use of software code belonging to Oracle as “fair use.”
In a 20-page ruling published Tuesday in San Francisco, U.S. District Judge William Alsup parsed the four factors that make up the “fair use” test, and also gave Google an implicit boost as the case winds its way back to an appeals court—and possibly to the Supreme Court.
“Overall, avoiding cross-system babel promoted the progress of science and useful arts — or so our jury could reasonably have found,” wrote Alsup, citing the intellectual property clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Alsup’s ruling comes nearly two weeks after the jury’s verdict in a trial that riveted many in Silicon Valley and the tech community, and which saw Oracle demand $9 billion in damages.
The case turned on Google’s GOOG -3.76% allegedly unlawful use of Java APIs for its Android operating system. Java is an open source programming language. But Oracle ORCL -3.92% claims Google needed permission to use the APIs, which allow different software programs to interact, and which Oracle acquired years ago from a defunct company called Sun Microsystems.
In explaining why the jury’s fair use finding was reasonable, Alsup emphasized the difference between “declaring code,” which is used to identify different actions, and “implementing code,” which carries out the actions. The judge likened the Java APIs to an arrangement of typewriter keys.
By analogy, all typewriters use the same QWERTY keyboard — imagine the confusion and universal disservice if every typewriter maker had to scramble the keyboard. Since both systems presupposed the Java programming language in the first place, it was better for both to share the same SSO insofar as they offered the same functionalities, thus maintaining usage consistency across systems and avoiding cross-system confusion, just as all typewriter keyboards should use the QWERTY layout — or so our jury could reasonably have found.
In the event the Federal Circuit issues a new ruling, the matter could go back to Supreme Court, which last year declined to hear an appeal of the case. It the top court decides to take the case on a second go-round, the justices would be in position to review everything at stake including whether APIs are copyrightable or if they should be subject to fair use.
More broadly, the case has attracted so much interest in part because of what it is at stake: APIs are a basic building block of modern software development, and letting companies control them with copyright could lead to a potential chilling effect in which coders are wary of using tools many have assumed to be free.