Google Wins First Battle of the 'Smart Phone War'
In a ruling that may come to shape software copyright ability for years to come, presiding judge William Alsup, referred to this case as the "World Series of technology litigation." In one of the first cases in smart phone litigation the stakes concerned Google's Android smart phone operating system. In this round, Google is the victor.
In 2010 Oracle Corporation acquired Sun Microsystems, Inc., and Sun's interest in the programming language known as Java. Oracle then sued Google claiming Google's Android platform infringed on Oracle's Java-related copyrights and patents. The claim itself is not frivolous. Java and Android both include, "virtual machines" development and testing kits, and application programming interfaces (APIs). To simplify the case, Judge Alsup decided whether Oracle had a protectable copyright in its APIs, and the jury decided whether there was copyright infringement or if the fair use doctrine applied.
Oracle's software copyright claim concerned 37 packages of its Java application. Judge Alsup stated "so long as the specific code used to implement a method is different, anyone is free under the Copyright Act to write his or her own code to carry out exactly the same function or specification of any methods used in the Java API." To determine whether or not the Android code infringed upon the Java code, Judge Alsup used the abstraction-filtration-comparison test adopted by the Second Circuit.
The test first takes the alleged infringed program and breaks it down into its structural parts (abstraction). It then removes all non-copyrightable materials (filtration), such as elements that are not identical or those in the public domain. What is left over is then compared. Using this test the court found four separate potentially protectable elements: 1. The names of the methods, classes and packages in the API; 2. The structure, sequence and organization of these elements; 3. The method specifications; and 4. The implementation of the methods.
After analyzing these potentially copyrightable elements Judge Alsup denied protection of the method specifications due to the merger doctrine. The merger doctrine is a rule in copyright law that says if there is but one way to express an idea than the expression of that idea is not copyrightable because it merges with the idea. This doctrine applies because in order for the Android API to function with the Java language the Android API had to be identical to the Java API. When there is only one way to express an idea or function then everyone is free to do so. Also, the names of the methods, classes, and package elements are not protected under copyright law because they are merely short phrases. On the other potentially protected elements, such as command structures, sequence, and organization, the court relied on Section 102(b) of the 1976 Copyright Act, which prohibits the protection of systems or methods of operation.
The order did not hold that the Java API packages were in the public domain nor approve their unlicensed use. It also did not conclude that the structure, sequence, and organization of all computer programs may be freely used. The order held only that Google in this software copyright case, replicated particular elements that are free for us all to use. However, that may change depending on whether this ruling survives the pending appeal.
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