CAFC Reverses Judge Alsup – Java API Declaring Code Held Copyrightable

by Lee Gesmer on May 10, 2014

On November 26, 2013 I wrote a post titled “Oracle v. Google: How Google Could Lose on Appeal” (link). After oral argument before the CAFC a couple of weeks later I wrote a follow-up post, “Oral Argument in Oracle v. Google: A Setback for Google?” (link).

I thought I was being a bit paranoid on Google’s behalf, but I was wrong – if anything, I was being too optimistic. The CAFC reversed California federal district court judge William Alsup, upholding almost every argument made by Oracle.

Interoperatibility Goes To Fair Use, Not Copyrightability

In the “How Google Could Lose” post I noted that Oracle had a good argument that interoperability is properly raised in connection with a copyright fair use defense, not to determine whether the plaintiff’s work is copyright-protected in the first instance.  The CAFC agreed, stating

Whether Google’s software is “interoperable” in some sense with any aspect of the Java platform  … has no bearing on the threshold question of whether Oracle’s software is copyrightable. It is the interoperability and other needs of Oracle—not those of Google—that apply in the copyrightability context, and there is no evidence that when Oracle created the Java API packages at issue it did so to meet compatibility requirements of other pre-existing programs.

Filtration for Interoperatility Should be Performed Ex Ante, Not Ex Post

In “How Google Could Lose” I noted that:

under Altai it is the first programmer’s work (in this case Oracle) that is filtered, not the alleged infringer’s work (in this case Google), and the filtration is performed as of the time the first work is created (ex ante) not as of the date of infringement (ex post).  When Oracle created the Java API it did not do so to meet compatibility requirements of other programs. Thus, copyright protection of the Java API was not invalidated by compatibility requirements at the time it was created.

The CAFC agreed, stating:

[W]e conclude that the district court erred in focusing its interoperability analysis on Google’s desires for its Android software … It is the interoperability and other needs of Oracle—not those of Google—that apply in the copyrightability context, and there is no evidence that when Oracle created the Java API packages at issue it did so to meet compatibility requirements of other pre-existing programs.

Lotus v. Borland Is Not the Law in the Ninth Circuit

In the “How Google Could Lose” post I noted that

“a close reading of Judge Alsup’s decision in Oracle/Google could lead one to conclude that this was the sole basis on which Judge Alsup found the structure of the Java API declaring code to be uncopyrightable, and therefore affirmance or reversal may depend on whether the CAFC concludes that Judge Alsup properly applied Lotus in Oracle/Google. . . . The CAFC could even reject Lotus outright, and hold that a system of commands is not a “method of operation” under §102(b). Both the Third and Tenth Circuits have indicated that the fact that the words of a program are used in the implementation of a process should not affect their copyrightability, and the CAFC could conclude that this is the appropriate approach under Ninth Circuit law.

In fact, this is exactly what the CAFC concluded:

[T]he Ninth Circuit has not adopted the [First Circuit’s] “method of operation” reasoning in Lotus, and we conclude that it is inconsistent with binding precedent. Specifically, we find that Lotus is incompatible with Ninth Circuit case law recognizing that the structure, sequence, and organization of a computer program is eligible for copyright protection where it qualifies as an expression of an idea, rather than the idea itself.

The only consolation that Google can take from this decision is that the court rejected Oracle’s argument that Google’s adoption of the Java declaring code did not qualify for fair use. Instead, the CAFC sent the case back to the federal district court for reconsideration (summary judgment motions and perhaps a trial) on that issue. Or, actually, a retrial, since the first jury trial on fair use resulted in a hung jury. However, as I read the decision, it seems to favor Oracle’s position on fair use, and I predict that Google will be hard pressed to justify its copying of the Java API declaring code based on fair use.

Perhaps the case will settle now, but Larry Ellison is not one to back down when he has the advantage. I suspect there are intellectual property damages experts across America dreaming of the case of a lifetime this weekend.

I gave an extensive presentation on Oracle v. Google at the Boston Bar Association on November 13, 2013. To see the slides, click here.

Oracle America, Inc. v. Google, Inc. (CAFC, May 9, 2014)

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