Oracle sued Google for infringement of its copyright in Java software. The district court has ruled that Google’s use of identical names and structure for 37 sets of functionalities in the Java API does not infringe Java’s copyright. So long as the specific code used to implement a method is different, then anyone is free under the Copyright Act to write his or her own code to carry out exactly the same function or specification of the Java API. How did the Court arrive at its decision and what does this mean for software developers, if the district court’s decision is upheld on appeal?
Google implemented Java functionality within its Android operating system for mobile devices. It believed that programmers already familiar with Java application development would prefer to find the same 37 sets of functionalities within its Android system and callable by the same names as used in the Java API. Google’s choice allows programs already written for Java to work on Android-based mobile devices, achieving a degree of interoperability between the Java API and its Android operating system. The Java functionalities in the Android virtual machine implements more than 6,000 methods, and there was no dispute that the 6,000 methods were free of any copyrighted Java code. Therefore, the sole issue addressed by the court is whether Google was and remains free to replicate the structure, sequence and organization of the 37 functionalities of the Java API within Android. The court held that Google can use identical names, adopt the same organization of those names and implement the same functionality of those 37 named packages of the Java API. According to the court, these functional features and short words and phrases are not subject to copyright, and Oracle has no right to exclude others, under copyright law, from using its system or method of operation.
Copyright only protects authorship in the expression of a work and not in the ideas or information contained in the work. The court held that the structure, sequence and organization of Java are a system or method of operation. These functional elements are not subject to copyright. Regardless of the degree of skill, creativity or imagination involved in developing the structure of the Java API, the entire world is entitled to use the exactly same structure and even identical names for calls to the API. This structural arrangement is the idea and is not the expression of the idea. To carry out any given functionality, the method specification as set forth in the declaration had to be identical to maintain some degree of interoperability between programs written for Java and Android.
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. Copyright protection never extends to names or short phrases. A command structure representing a utilitarian and functional set of symbols is not subject to copyright under Section 102(b) of the Copyright Act. This case is an important reminder of the limitations of copyright law for protecting rights in software. With the current uncertainty about whether software can be patented, software developers must seek experienced IP counsel to assist in protecting rights in their most valuable asset.©2002-2013 Fowler White Boggs P.A. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED