Google has successfully defended itself from a $9 billion lawsuit from Oracle. In doing so, Google’s lawyers have prevented a dangerous precedent that would have given old copyright-hoarding tech companies a way to sue lots of startups and open source projects.
If this is the first you’ve heard about the trial, I don’t blame you. It was basically just a bunch of lawyers trying to explain the intricacies of APIs and copyright law to a jury of non-technical Californians, using metaphors like file cabinets and bookshelves.
When the person in the row ahead of you is buying tickets on StubHub during testimony, you know you’re in the weeds.
- Brian Bishop reporting for The Verge
Here’s a rough timeline of how the whole conflict unfolded:
2005: Google acquires Android. They opt to use Java over Microsoft’s C#, negotiate with Sun Microsystems, who own Java, but fail to secure a licensing deal.
2006: Google rejects Sun’s alleged offer of a three-year Java license for $20 million plus 10% of Google’s Android-related revenue, capped at $25 million.
2007: Google publicly announces Android, and its use of Dalvik, a Java-compatible virtual machine.
2010: Oracle acquires Sun for its Java patents and copyrights, then files a lawsuit accusing Google of infringing upon seven of Sun’s Java patents.
2011: The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office dismisses five of the seven patent allegations. Oracle seeks damages of up to $6 billion. A settlement can’t be reached.
2012: Oracle and Google go to trial in a San Francisco district court and Google wins.
2014: An appeals court reverses the district court’s decision, stating that an API is copyrightable.
2016: A second trial starts over whether Google’s use of Java’s APIs was fair use.
Sarah Jeong, a law and technology journalist who covered the trial in detail since it began, announced its conclusion in with this tweet:
Throughout the lawsuit, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Oracle’s place in this classic collection of tech company organizational charts:
You’re probably asking, “OK. So one massive multinational corporation doesn’t need to give $9 billion to another massive multinational corporation. How is this a win for me as a developer?”
Well, if you’re developing software — or plan to in the future — this means that Google’s lawyers just steered you around a massive intellectual property minefield. They were able to prevent Oracle from setting a dangerous precedent: that a company could successfully sue you for writing your own functionally similar implementation of their APIs.
Unfortunately, the case isn’t closed yet. Oracle has vowed to appeal the decision yet again. And this ruling could still be overturned.
Either way, the fact that Oracle was able to get so close to a verdict in their favor is pretty terrifying, and may embolden other companies that hold copyrights on APIs to start suing startups and open source projects, too.
For example, a company called Micro Focus owns Unix, which among other things uses an API called POSIX. They could start suing developers who maintain versions of Linux and other Unix-compatible open source operating systems.
We’re not out of the woods yet, but all of us developers in the open source world — and the people who use our software — can breathe a momentary sigh of relief.
If you have time, check out Sarah Jeong’s account of how absurd this trial was, and how disastrous an Oracle victory would have been for everyone but Oracle.
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