Some people claim that nothing is unique. That everything we come up with has already been done by many others and will be done again. But there’s a difference between great minds think alike and someone repeating something they’ve seen someone else do.
Copyright law exists to protect creative ventures and intellectual property. That can get tricky when it becomes difficult to draw the line between the things that constitute infringement and the things that are considered public domain. For example, an entire work, such as a song, article, or book, is eligible for copyright, but short phrases and individual words are not.
Writing software code is not much different from writing anything else. On the one hand, it requires a certain amount of creativity and, although two people may write code that does essentially the same thing, they will not write it in exactly the same way. On the other hand, there are only so many ways they can tell a computer how to do something. If some of those ways are protected by copyrights, it severely limits the options coders have for trying to do the same or similar things.
This debate is at the heart of a lawsuit Oracle Corporation filed against Google for allegedly stealing code written by Java and using it in Google’s Android. In its complaint, Oracle alleges purchasing Java was the most significant and lucrative purchase it has made, and that everything produced by that company should therefore be protected as Oracle’s property. Because Google has made an estimated $21 billion in profit from Android since it launched in 2007, Oracle is claiming $9 billion of that money.
Google disagrees, saying the code it used was open source. In issues of copyright dispute, such as this one, there is a filtration courts can conduct to determine the uniqueness of the product in question. They take a full body of work (in this case 37 API packages created by Java) and identify components of that work that are not subject to the exclusive control of the copyright holder. Once that’s done, the court can analyze the content for any possible infringement.
The copyright lawsuit was initially filed in 2010, shortly after Java obtained Sun Microsystems and Oracle purchased Java. The court ruled in Google’s favor and Oracle appealed the decision to the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which had jurisdiction because the lawsuit originally contained patent claims, as well as copyright. The Federal Court ruled in Oracle’s favor. Google appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which remanded the case back to the federal circuit court.
Both the California court and the federal appellate court conducted their own filtration and analysis to determine the suitability of the code in question for copyright. They came to different conclusions, but if the federal court upholds its previous ruling, it could create serious problems for coders all over the country by significantly diminishing their options for writing code to do all sorts of things, including software to interact with Java’s original API packages (the “I” stands for “interface,” which means it’s designed to interact with other software). Legal experts have warned that a ruling in Oracle’s favor would give the company too much power in its industry, but the final decision rests in the hands of the federal court.
The Federal Circuit court ruled that the code is subject to copyright, but there are several problems with that ruling, namely that there are only so many ways you can add numbers together and by copyrighting some of those methods, you are depriving all other programmers of part of their already limited resources. On the other hand, code does require some creativity to write. The Supreme Court refused to hear arguments for the case and sent it back to federal court.
The problem might have arisen from professional lawyers trying to rule on a matter they don’t fully understand: coding.
Google used 3 API packages from Java out of a bundle of 34 packages
Ex: methods of predicting weather cannot be subject to copyright, but the specific code used to predict the weather might be subject to copyright.
Oracle is suing Google for $9 billion, alleging Google stole 11,000 out of 13 million lines of software code in Android.
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