The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals today reversed a ruling that Oracle Corp.’s Java software could not be copyrighted.  The court reinstated a jury verdict that Google Inc.’s Android operating system infringes on Oracle’s copyright, but allowed Google to argue on remand that it is protected by fair use. 

The underlying lawsuit was filed by Oracle against Google in the Northern District of California.  Oracle alleged that Google infringed on its patents and copyrights related to certain application programing interfaces (“API”) computer source code written by Oracle in the Java programming language.  Java is a programming language designed to allow programmers to create code that will run on numerous platforms without being reconfigured.  APIs are preset packages of Java code created so programmers can easily use oft-repeated functions rather than re-writing them each time.  Oracle sought more than $1 billion in damages.

At trial, the jury found no patent infringement, but determined Google infringed Oracle’s copyrights.  The jury deadlocked on Google’s fair use defense. 

After the jury verdict, the trial court concluded that Oracle’s Java source code was not entitled to copyright protection, negating the jury’s finding that Google infringed.  The trial court specifically found that the replicated elements of Oracle’s API packages—including the declaring code and the structure, sequence, and organization—were not subject to copyright protection.

On appeal—Oracle America Inc. v. Google Inc., case number 13-1021— Google asked the court “to declare that protection of software programs should be the domain of patent law, and only patent law.”  Declining that invitation, the Federal Circuit instead declared, “[u]ntil the Supreme Court or Congress tells us otherwise, we are bound to respect the Ninth Circuit’s decision to afford software programs protection under the copyright laws.”  In particular, the court held that “the declaring code and the structure, sequence, and organization of the API packages are entitled to copyright protection.”  The Federal Circuit, therefore, reversed, instructed the trial court to reinstate the jury verdict as to copyright infringement, and remanded the question of whether Google’s use of the Java codes was a protected fair use under copyright law. 

While many watchers of this case had hoped the patent-centric Federal Circuit would take up the question of which type of intellectual property law should apply to software (patent or copyrights), today’s decision leaves open both avenues of protection.