On May 9, 2014, the appellate court handed down its 69-page decision in the Oracle vs Google API copyright case. The court ruled in favor of Oracle, but did push down to the lower court some remaining issues (which I will not bore you with right now…even though it is super interesting to software attorneys). I know you don’t want to read all of the case, so as a software licensing attorney I thought I should share a few takeaways for software and SaaS based companies. So here goes.
One overall theme I clearly got from reading the case, is that courts do not think all software is equal or the same. Said another way, courts will look very closely at the actual code (how it was created, how it works, what functions it performs, etc) and the same for the alleged infringing code. The courts are going to slice things very thin, and it’s hard to come up with many general rules, as it really does depend on the technical details. Translated into plain English, these cases are very fact specific and can become super expensive to litigate.
Functions (and Short Phrases) May be Copyrighted.
The court made it pretty clear that because something performs a function (or is a short phrase), it does not necessarily mean that it is uncopyrightable. Also, even if an element is functional (like ‘File,’ ‘Print,’ ‘Quit’), the code that implements the function may be copyrightable as it will likely contain original expressions. Make sense to me.
If an API can be written in many ways, then it may get copyright protection. This is good news for software companies with APIs, as the law seems to be tending to protect APIs more than people thought.
Bar to Copyrightability vs. the Bar for Infringement. Proving that something is subject to copyright protection is a pretty low bar, however, proving that someone infringed on the copyright is not that easy.
So if you have the time, read the case, as it is really interesting (it is not just for software licensing attorneys). However, you will soon see that this decision really turned on how Java works, how it was designed and how Google implemented it. If you change the facts somewhat, the outcome of the case would likely be very different. So the copyrightability of the API is still one of those ‘it depends’ kinds of things.
Disclaimer: This post is for informational and educational purposes only, and is not legal advice. You should hire an attorney if you need legal advice, which should be provided only after review of all relevant facts and applicable law.