Chasing Copyright Protection: Oracle Settles for Zero Damages and Appeals

JLTA Staff Writer

Judge William Alsup, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, approved a settlement for zero damages in Oracle’s copyright infringement against Google. Oracle Am., Inc. v. Google Inc., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 75897 (N.D. Cal., May 31, 2012). In August 2010, Oracle sued Google for illegally using 37 of Oracle’s application programming interfaces (“APIs”)—protected by patents and copyrights—in Google’s Android mobile operating system. Google has contended it did not violate patents or copyrights, because APIs are necessary to use in Java programming language and Java itself is free for anyone to employ.

Over two weeks after the trial began, the jury returned a partial verdict and found that Oracle had “proven that Google has infringed the overall structure, sequence and organization of the copyrighted works” for the 37 Java API packages. The jury split over whether Google’s actions constituted fair use.

Judge Alsup later ruled the APIs at issue in the case were not copyrightable. Judge Alsup was careful to note that his order did not “hold that Java API packages are free for all to use without license.”

The order is in line with the European Union’s treatment of APIs as not eligible for copyright protection. However, by limiting the holding to the facts of this case, Judge Alsup left open the question of API eligibility for general copyright protection both on appeal in this case as well as in future cases.

Following Judge Alsup’s order, Oracle could only hope to win statutory damages—estimated to be no more than a few hundred thousands dollars—for the jury’s finding that Google violated Oracle’s rangeCheck method code.

In a desire to appeal swiftly Judge Alsup’s decision, Oracle settled for zero dollars in damages, despite originally seeking $6.1 billion in damages. This revolutionary litigation strategy caused Judge Alsup to ask: “Is there a catch I need to be aware of?”

Oracle’s strategy is unique for copyright and patent litigation. The ability to save attorneys’ fees by immediately appealing on the merits of the case makes litigating copyright and patent issues regarding technology more economically feasible. For plaintiffs like Oracle, there is little to be gained by winning a few minor claims, but losing the major ones. Yet gambling to win the big issues on appeal may make litigation a reasonable proposition. It will be interesting to see if other technology companies with similar claims that could result in either a big win or minor loss (the attorneys’ fees totaling just slightly higher than the statutory damages awarded) will adopt Oracle’s approach. Further, will the universe of yet to be litigated technology law issues dwindle with this race to the appeal litigation approach?

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