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Judge Clears Google of Java Copyright Infringement

What the Ruling Means to the Industry

His ruling will be welcomed by many in the software industry, who feared a decision in Oracle's favor would set a worrying precedent that software APIs can be protected by copyright.

Such a finding would have stifled innovation, according to some. For example, companies have cloned the APIs used by Amazon Web Services in order to build interoperable cloud software platforms. Those companies might have hesitated before developing such products if a court had explicitly stated that APIs are eligible for protection.

"If Oracle wins, the decision could set a legal precedent that legitimizes controlling behaviors by platform vendors -- and introduces a complex and unwelcome legalism into software development," Simon Phipps, a former Sun executive who managed the company's open-source projects, wrote in a column for Infoworld before the trial began.

Google echoed that position in a statement Thursday. "The court's decision upholds the principle that open and interoperable computer languages form an essential basis for software development. It's a good day for collaboration and innovation."

In its statement, Oracle essentially argued the opposite. "This ruling, if permitted to stand, would undermine the protection for innovation and invention in the United States and make it far more difficult to defend intellectual property rights against companies anywhere in the world that simply takes them as their own," Oracle said.

Naughton made a similar argument in a blog post earlier this week.

"Open source licensing of APIs or code works precisely because copyright applies to the API or code and allows the copyright owner to impose the terms and conditions of the open source license," Naughton wrote.

There is no U.S. law that precisely addresses the question of whether Oracle's Java APIs can be copyrighted, Alsup said in his order. "No law is directly on point. This order relies on general principles of copyright law announced by Congress, the Supreme Court and the Ninth Circuit."

His order applies to the 37 Java APIs at issue in the legal battle between Oracle and Google, he wrote. Still, the reasoning Alsup lays out about the functional nature of APIs could influence future cases involving different software platforms.

"Any decision in any case is specific to the case at hand, the judge would only be ruling on these particular APIs. But that is still a precedent," said Tyler Ochoa, a copyright professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, in an interview before Alsup's order was released.

Ochoa has said he did not think the structure, sequence and organization of Oracle's Java APIs merited protection by copyright, and he said that "existing case law suggests something along those lines."

Whatever Alsup decided, an appeal seemed inevitable. Oracle will now take its case to a higher court to see if it agrees with his order.

Updated 5/31/12 at 5 p.m.

James Niccolai covers data centers and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow James on Twitter at @jniccolai. James's e-mail address is james_niccolai@idg.com

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