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Google prevails in Android attack

Case of the Year: Oracle v Google

The result

Google overcame Oracle’s patent claims but jury was hung on copyright infringement

The impact

Several lessons on APIs and copyright, and the Android system emerges stronger

In August 2010, Oracle filed suit against Google for patent and copyright infringement in the US District Court for the Northern District of California, in the first major attack against the Android operating system. The case was so complex it demanded a six-week jury trial with separate phases for the patent and copyright claims.

In the copyright leg of the suit, the jury found that Google infringed "the overall structure, sequence and organization" of 37 of Oracle's copyrighted Application Programming Interface (API) packages, which are used by software programs to communicate with each other. But the San Francisco jury could not decide whether Google's use of those works constituted fair use under US law. It also found that Google's use of the documentation for those 37 packages did not infringe.

Other uses were found to infringe, but the jury also said that Oracle engaged in conduct that could have led Google to believe it did not need a licence to use the structure, sequence and organisation of the 37 APIs. Still, the jurors said that Google had failed to prove it relied on that conduct in deciding to use the APIs, so the verdict had criticisms for both sides.

In a separate verdict on the patent claims, another jury found Oracle had failed to prove whether Google infringed patents RE38,104 and 6,061,520 by a preponderance of the evidence, and whether Google willfully infringed the patents by clear and convincing evidence.

Both aspects of the case are now on appeal to the Federal Circuit, but there were some clear lessons to be drawn from Judge William Alsup's opinion on the copyrightability of the Java APIs.

First, Alsup deemed the code for the Java API packages functional because Oracle requires identical method specifications to carry out the same function. "When there is only one way to write something, the merger doctrine bars anyone from claiming exclusive copyright ownership of that expression," wrote the judge. To get around this, Michael Lasky of Burr & Forman told Managing IP that Oracle (then Sun Microsystems) could have made it possible to provide other ways to link APIs with each other. "The lesson is: don't take it all. Leave some on the table," he said.

Secondly, Lasky said that registering entire works under one registration often leaves them open to so-called de minimis arguments, meaning the infringed part is so small as to be insignificant. Of the 37 API packages Oracle asserted, the jury found nine lines (or 3%) of code infringed. Oracle could have registered its most critical lines of code separately early in product development.

Lastly, while Alsup did not dispute that Oracle's methods were creative, he made a distinction between patents and copyrights. "Such inventions – the concept and functionality level – are protectable only under the Patent Act," he said. Oracle might have done better if it had filed more patent applications instead of relying largely on copyright.

Case details

Oracle v Google

Copyrights: 37 packages in the Java API

Patents: Seven Java-related patents

Offices: USPTO; US Copyright Office

Patent numbers: 6,125,447; 6,192,476; 5,966,702; 7,426,720; RE38,104; 6,910,205; and 6,061,520

Patent/copyright holder: Oracle

Other party: Google

Court: US District Court for the Northern District of California (on appeal to Federal Circuit)

Case number: 3:10-CV-03561

For Oracle: Boies Schiller & Flexner, Morrison & Foerster

For Google: King & Spalding, Keker & Van Nest, Greenberg Traurig

This case was selected as one of Managing IP’s Cases of the Year for 2012.

To see the rest, click on one of the cases below.

The 10 cases of the year

A fillip for the EU pharmaceutical sector
Relief for trade mark owners in red sole saga
Australian TV streaming service held to be illegal
Smartphone war hits front page in the US
Liberalising the EU’s software market
India allows parallel imports
Victory for fair dealing in Canada
Lacoste loses its trade mark in China
Google prevails in Android attack
EU test case clarifies class headings

Ten you might have missed

Canada: Ambiguous claims can invalidate patents
Russia: Certainty on parallel imports
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First FRAND cases litigated worldwide
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Data exclusivity backed by Mexican courts
China: A shift over OEM manufacturing
Authors in the US able to reclaim joint copyrights
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India: Financial Times loses trade mark

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