Google Prevails as Jury Rebuffs Oracle in Code Copyright Case


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Larry Page, co-founder of Google and chief executive of Alphabet.

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Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

A jury ruled in favor of Google on Thursday in a long legal dispute with Oracle over software used to power most of the world’s smartphones.

Oracle contended that Google used copyrighted material in 11,000 of its 13 million lines of software code in Android, its mobile phone operating system. Oracle asked for $9 billion from Google. Google said it made fair use of that code and owed nothing.

The victory for Google cheered other software developers, who operate much the way Google did when it comes to so-called open-source software. Unlike traditional software created by corporations and tightly held, open-source products are released, often with some restrictions, for anyone to use and modify.

“Great news for progress and innovation,” Chris Dixon, a technology investor with Andreessen Horowitz, the venture capital firm, posted on Twitter after the verdict.

Android relies in part on Java, an open-source software language that Oracle acquired when it bought Sun Microsystems for $7.4 billion in 2010. Oracle argued that Google executives violated Oracle’s copyright by using aspects of Java without permission.

William Fitzgerald, a Google spokesman, said in a statement that the verdict “represents a win for the Android ecosystem, for the Java programming community and for software developers who rely on open and free programming languages to build innovative consumer products.”

The courtroom fight was something of a watershed for technology and could offer clarity on legal rules surrounding open-source technology, which is used in everything from smartphones and digital recording devices to the software that runs many of the world’s biggest data centers.

People who work with open-source technology worried that a victory for Oracle would have led other companies to make similar demands of open-source products.

“It does give a lot of breathing room to other companies and individuals trying to do a lot of innovative activity,” said Parker Higgins, director of copyright activism at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights advocacy group.

While there is an expectation in open-source projects that the software tweaks of others will be given back to the community working on the software, open source often requires a license as well.

But where software licenses typically forbid touching code or sharing code with anyone, open-source licenses usually insist on sharing. They detail what can and cannot be used by other companies in their products. And they often require people to share their work with other developers.

The idea is that, collectively, people working at many companies or even out of their homes or college dorms can build better technology than what is created behind the closed doors of one corporation.

From the start, this was a trial neither side intended. Oracle first sued Google in 2010, accusing it of patent and copyright violations in Android. The outcome of that case, which was decided in 2012, was largely favorable to Google.

But in 2014, a federal appeals court found that certain parts of Java were protected by copyright, providing Oracle with fresh ammunition. When the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of that decision last year, the case was sent back to the lower courts to hear the copyright aspect of the case again.

In this iteration of the courtroom fight, Eric E. Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, testified that Sun knew Google was using Java and approved of that use even though Google did not obtain a license. Jonathan Schwartz, who was chief executive of Sun before Oracle bought it, backed up that view, and a blog post he wrote praising Android was a major piece of evidence in the trial.

Oracle provided a series of emails and meeting documents that countered that view, suggesting that Larry Page, a founder of Google and chief executive of Alphabet, had pressed the Android team to develop the product quickly. Mr. Page denied the suggestion on the stand.

The particular areas of copyright protection in Java involved the so-called declaring code in Application Programming Interfaces, or A.P.I.s., which have become the common way that networked programs on the Internet share data.

Declaring code establishes standards and meanings by which future lines of software, the actual effects the software seeks to create, will operate. This distinction compelled the 10 jurors — eight women and two men — to hear extensive testimony by engineers and economists about the nature of code, and the copyrightable implications of this type of creativity.

Dorian Daley, Oracle’s general counsel, said the company planned to appeal. “We strongly believe that Google developed Android by illegally copying core Java technology to rush into the mobile device market,” she said in a statement. “Oracle brought this lawsuit to put a stop to Google’s illegal behavior.”

Some lawyers cautioned against viewing the verdict as a green light for the type of software development Google performed, saying that the earlier federal appeals court decision validated the idea that A.P.I.s can be copyrighted.

“I don’t think the industry can sit back and rely on this decision and exhale and say these things won’t be protected,” said Christopher Carani, a lawyer at McAndrews, Held & Malloy. “I think what you’re still going to see is a lot more attention paid to securing approval to use other copyrights before the fact.”

John Bergmayer, a senior staff attorney at Public Knowledge, a consumer rights group, cheered the verdict in a statement, but said he remained troubled by the implications of the earlier court decision. “Other courts of appeal should reject the Federal Circuit’s mistaken finding of copyrightability,” he said. “For now, though, the jury’s verdict is a welcome dose of common sense.”

Andy Rubin, who led the Android project at Google, worked at Apple early in his career and later developed a type of multifunction phone, which had a Java license. Oracle’s executive chairman, Lawrence J. Ellison, who appeared in video testimony, was friends with Steve Jobs, who led development of the iPhone, and Scott McNealy, a founder and the chief executive of Sun before Mr. Schwartz.

While the jury may now rest, the court fight will probably continue. The case could go to the Supreme Court, though it was unclear whether the court would rule definitively on copyright, said Pamela Samuelson, a professor at the School of Law and the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley. “They don’t usually like to go against what the appeals court established,” she said.

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