Oracle v. Google API Ruling Clears the Air for Clouds

In a welcome development for cloud coders, a federal judge determines that Oracle can't claim copyright on APIs.

Members of the developer community, particularly coders that are working on new cloud services, are breathing a huge sigh of relief after a federal judge delivered a ruling in the Oracle v. Google court case.

"Innovation for the win," wrote Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) staff attorney Julie Samuels after Judge William Alsup ruled in Google's favor during the closely watched case over the company's use of Java APIs in its Android mobile operating system. Alsup, who revealed during the trial that he was an experienced programmer, invalidated Oracle's argument that Google violated its Java application programming interface (API) copyrights.

In his 41-page opinion, Judge Alsup determined:

"This order does not hold that Java API packages are free for all to use without license. It does not hold that the structure, sequence and organization of all computer programs may be stolen.  Rather, it holds on the specific facts of this case, the particular elements replicated by Google were free for all to use under the Copyright Act.  Therefore, Oracle’s claim based on Google’s copying of the 37 API packages, including their structure, sequence and organization is DISMISSED."

Addressing the companies' disagreement over Google's use of an identical command structure, Judge Alsup wrote, "Under the rules of Java, they must be identical to declare a method specifying the same functionality — even when the implementation is different." Therefore, he writes, "When there is only one way to express an idea or function, then everyone is free to do so and no one can monopolize that expression."

Alsup concluded that as a matter of law, copyright does not extend to APIs. "This command structure is a system or method of operation under Section 102(b) of the Copyright Act and, therefore, cannot be copyrighted.  Duplication of the command structure is necessary for interoperability," concludes Alsup.

Oracle is appealing the decision. For now, the ruling should give cloud companies peace of mind, if not outright delight.

Clouds Float Free

Ostensibly waged over smartphone technology, the Oracle v. Google legal battle had industry-wide reach. Siding with Oracle, experts claim, would have resulted in a profound -- many claim a negative -- impact on virtually the entire IT industry, and the growing cloud computing market in particular.

EFF's Julie Samuels responded to the ruling on the group's blog. "The court clearly understood that ruling otherwise would have impermissibly – and dangerously – allowed Oracle to tie up 'a utilitarian and functional set of symbols,' which provides the basis for so much of the innovation and collaboration we all rely on today," she wrote.

APIs, which essentially govern how software interoperates with other software, are the glue that holds cloud software services together. They are responsible for much of the "innovation and collaboration" that cloud services bring to the market today.

Free and largely unfettered use of cloud APIs has contributed to a vibrant cloud services ecosystems like Amazon's AWS platform and an explosion in infrastructure and software spending. Claiming copyright on APIs could have undermined that progress or at least threaten to make cloud computing a costly proposition for startups and entrepreneurs, assert experts like George Reese, Chief Technology Officer for cloud management specialist enStratus Networks.

In his ruling, Judge Alsup averted a cloud crisis. It helped that he was well versed in both coding practices and copyright law, according to Julie Samuels. "It's a pleasure to see a judge so fundamentally understand the technology at issue," writes Samuels.

This familiarity and insight undoubtedly helped him navigate the thorny issues surrounding the case and arrive at the appropriate, innovation-friendly conclusion, opines Samuels. She adds that "Oracle’s attempts to shoehorn its upatented APIs into copyright law were met with the proper rejection."

Pedro Hernandez is a contributing editor at, the news service of the IT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals. Follow him on Twitter @ecoINSITE.

Tags: Oracle, cloud computing, Google, API

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