Google Takes Java Fight to the U.S. Supreme Court

Posted on January 24, 2019 by Paul Thurrott in Google, Android with 21 Comments

Google announced today that it has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene in the long-running legal battle over its use of Java in Android.

“We built Android following the computer industry’s long-accepted practice of re-using software interfaces, which provide sets of commands that make it easy to implement common functionality—in the same way that computer keyboard short-cuts like pressing ‘control’ and ‘p’ make it easy to print,” Google Chief Legal Officer Kent Walker explains in a blog post. “Android created a transformative new platform, while letting millions of Java programmers use their existing skills to create new applications. And the creators of Java backed the release of Android, saying that it had ‘strapped another set of rockets to the [Java] community’s momentum’.”

Java’s creators, of course, were purchased along with Java and the rest of Sun Microsystems by Oracle in 2010. And that company is the one that has been suing Google for using Java source code in Android, now the most dominant personal computing platform on earth.

The case has gone back and forth. In 2012, a federal court jury found that Google had not infringed on the Oracle’s Java patents, and that the Java APIs were protected under copyright law. But on appeal, that judgment was partially reversed, with a federal appeals court finding that software code was, in fact, copyrightable.

A second trial found that Google’s use of the Java source code constituted fair use. But Oracle appealed again and reversed that ruling. This case is currently awaiting a damages determination.

“The U.S. Constitution authorized copyrights to ‘promote the progress of science and useful arts,’ not to impede creativity or promote lock-in of software platforms,” Walker continues. “Leading voices from business, technology, academia, and the nonprofit sector agree and have spoken out about the potentially devastating impacts of this case.”

In its filing with the Supreme Court, Google reiterates its belief that its fair use of Java source code does not represent a copyright infringement and that its original court victories should stand.

“Google has never disputed that some forms of computer code are entitled to copyright protection,” the filing nots. “But the Federal Circuit’s widely criticized opinions—in an area in which that court has no specialized expertise—go much further, throwing a devastating one-two punch at the software industry. If allowed to stand, the Federal Circuit’s approach will upend the longstanding expectation of software developers that they are free to use existing software interfaces to build new computer programs. Developers who have invested in learning free and open programming languages such as Java will be unable to use those skills to create programs for new platforms—a result that will undermine both competition and innovation. Because this case is an optimal vehicle for addressing the exceptionally important questions presented, the petition for a writ of certiorari should be granted.”

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Comments (21)

21 responses to “Google Takes Java Fight to the U.S. Supreme Court”

  1. skane2600

    The courts in the 90s probably would have ruled in Google's favor. Apple vs Microsoft. Lotus vs Borland. Courts in recent years have embraced ruling in favor of copyright and patent holders to a degree they didn't in the past.

    • PixyMisa

      In reply to skane2600:

      The original decision was in Google's favour, and was well-reasoned, clear, and decisive. The judge learned to program in Java to make sure he understood the details of the case.

      Then of course it got overturned on appeal.

  2. per.steinar

    It would be interesting to read a comparison of the Microsoft vs. Sun case regarding msjvm and this case.

  3. eric_rasmussen

    In China, the ruling party consists of a high number of scientists and engineers. In the U.S., close to 100% of politicians and judges come from a legal background, many practicing as attorneys before a career in public service. Yes, China steals other countries' IP. But China also understands that intellectual property law stifles innovation. The U.S. is no longer the tech leader it once was; that crown is now in China. I place the majority of the blame on the ridiculous software patent system that was in place here for so many years (which, by the way, is making a comeback now that process patents are being allowed again).

    The people who lead this nation are about as technically savvy as the average 7-year-old. This does not bode well for sanity when discussing technical issues in a court. I don't know a single engineer who believes Oracle is right, yet somehow they can convince the courts that publicly released APIs are protected intellectual property that can't be used by others. If that was the way things actually worked, then Oracle needs to pay IBM and AT&T billions for implementing the interfaces those companies crafted for relational databases.

  4. lvthunder

    I would be surprised if the Supreme Court takes up the case.

  5. JerryH

    So one last chance for rationality to prevail here. We'll have to see if the Supreme Court deigns to accept this one.

  6. RM

    "If allowed to stand, the Federal Circuit’s approach will upend the longstanding expectation of software developers that they are free to use existing software interfaces to build new computer programs. Developers who have invested in learning free and open programming languages such as Java will be unable to use those skills to create programs for new platforms—a result that will undermine both competition and innovation." Google is guilty of not allowing Microsoft to create Windows Phone apps that used Google API's to create applications Google would not create to for Windows Phones even though there were millions of the devices in the world. If Google can strong arm competition to maintain market share by deigning Microsoft use of API's to create apps, the Oracle can deign Google access to API's also!

    • skane2600

      In reply to RM:

      It's not a valid comparison. I don't know if that actually happened, but if it did the issue wouldn't be the APIs but rather the services behind them. Google isn't trying to access Oracle services through the Java API, they just wanted to access their own Java implementation through standard calls.

  7. dontbe evil

    hope they'll give google the huge fine ever

  8. brduffy

    Interfaces are an integral part of the architecture of a language or framework. Copying the interfaces of an entire language is just a way to get around what appears to be a legitimate copyright. The case will probably not be decided based on its merits. That's the way big business works.

    • skane2600

      In reply to brduffy:

      I disagree. I see interfaces as the least important part from an implementation perspective. All the power comes from the code that lies beneath the interfaces.

      On the other hand, interfaces are very important to the user of a language or framework because of all the effort required to learn those interfaces. Oracle essentially is willing to let developers throw out all that knowledge. If developers had understood that interfaces would be handled in this way, I suspect that Java would have been far less successful.

      • roland

        In reply to skane2600:

        Wasn't one of Java's early slogans "Write once, run everywhere."? If the interfaces had to be different on every platform it was on, then it would have been "Write everywhere." Sun touted this as one of Java's advantages, and it certainly would not have been as popular as skane2600 notes.

        As I recall from the last time I bothered to pay attention to this saga, didn't Google just duplicate the interfaces? the Underlying code was a "clean-room" implementation.

        (Ie, they duplicated the functions' calls and returns: how it got there was "unique").

        • wright_is

          In reply to roland:

          Java is, more-or-less, write once run everywhere. The issue isn't Java, the issue is/was Dalvik.

          Dalvik is Google's abklatsch (rip-off, but I like the German word) of Java, which was used on early Android devices.

          So they used (parts) of the standard Java framework, but didn't license the Java runtime, the built their own, Dalvik, which supported the subset of the Java framework that Google wanted. When the case came along, they changed away from Dalvik to use ART instead.

          So the case resolves around whether the framework and Dalvik were a legal rip-off of Java or whether Google should have licensed Java and be done with it.

          That Sun was happy that Google used their own Dalvik engine should mean that Oracle doesn't have a leg to stand on, but, if I remember my history correctly, they only gave the verbal okay to Dalvik, there was never anything in writing saying that Sun had no problems with Dalvik and the copied framework.

          • skane2600

            In reply to wright_is:

            Java's WORE capabilities have always been exaggerated. It works best for the kind of programs its creators were most familiar with - headless programs on Unix.

            If Oracle had a patent on Java they might have been able to stop a clean-room implementation of it, but copyright doesn't offer that level of protection. Thus the argument is around the API which may or may not be protected by copyright.

  9. lordbaal1

    So then I can copy MS office code and then sell it under a different name? The code that they used was copy righted. Hence, they stole it.

    But when Uber stole Waymo code to use in their car, Google was playing the victim.

    • wright_is

      In reply to lordbaal1:

      You seem to have gotten the wrong end of the stick.

      They didn't copy the code. The code was, allegedly, re-written from scratch. What they copied were the APIs. That would be like writing an Office suite that opens Microsoft Office documents.

    • dontbe evil

      In reply to lordbaal1:

      but you know is google, they're good, everything they do is fine... if it was MS they're bad, everything they do is wrong.

      clearly you can see it from google fanboys downvoted your comment

    • skane2600

      In reply to lordbaal1:

      Which version of Oracle's Java JVM is embedded in an Android phone? It's just the interfaces isn't it? Imagine if Bell Labs copyrighted the semicolon for it's use as a designation for the end of a code line.

  10. v_2samg

    If I wrote my own operating system from scratch implementing the Win32 API and allowed all Win32 apps and drivers to run on top of it and sell that product, would that be legal?