Experts torn on Oracle's chances of appeal in Android copyright ruling

Judge William Alsup's 'thorough, well-written' ruling presents a high hurdle

Oracle has pledged to appeal a judge's ruling Thursday that Java APIs cited in its lawsuit against Google weren't subject to copyright protection, but legal scholars and attorneys not associated with the case expressed mixed opinions whether that would be successful.

U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup's 41-page ruling determined that the Java APIs (application programming interfaces) in the case were functional and utilitarian components of Java, and therefore not protected. Oracle's lawsuit claimed that Google's Android software infringed patents and copyrights for Java that Oracle acquired when it bought Sun Microsystems in early 2010.

Alsup was careful to say that this ruling wasn't meant to apply to all Java APIs, just the ones in the case, but his decision nonetheless was applauded by some observers, who felt that if he ruled in Oracle's favor, it would set a bad precedent and inhibit new innovations in programming.

Now Oracle will have some time to regroup and mull over strategies for its appeal, said Edward Naughton, an intellectual-property lawyer with the Boston firm Brown Rudnick, in an interview Friday.

"The appeal process is an interesting one, because they get more time and are able to focus their arguments a little bit more on what the law should be, rather than what it currently is," Naughton said.

Appeals courts consider prior cases when making decisions, as Alsup did in his ruling, Naughton said. However, "they have a little bit more freedom to make rulings that embody policy decisions," he added.

To this end, "Oracle can talk about what the law ought to be, what principles should be applied to these facts," Naughton said. "But they will also have to take on why Alsup's description of the Java language may be a little bit of an oversimplification. They need to challenge the premise of Judge Alsup's analysis and show the situation is more complicated than how he described it."

But Alsup brought a unique quality to the case, revealing recently that he has a background in computer programming, which helped him understand the issues in the case. When Oracle goes to an appeals court, the person sitting on the bench may not have the same depth of knowledge as Alsup, making its attorneys' jobs potentially even more difficult.

"Alsup is more technical than your average judge," Naughton said.

However, "lawyers who deal with technology cases have to translate some technical things in ways nontechnical people can understand. That's the skill of good appellate lawyers."

Oracle's lawyers will likely "comb back" through the testimony in the original case in search of evidence that shows the Java APIs constitute "more than just methods of operation," he said.

In one sense, Alsup's ruling made Oracle's appeal easier, since the judge agreed that the APIs reflected creativity and originality on the part of their creators. "Now they can concentrate their fire and their arguments on the idea of functionality. That's what they'll do."

Overall, Oracle has a good chance in its appeal, Naughton said. "The cases where you don't have a good shot is where the case turns on the credibility of a witness, a 'he-said, she-said' situation. On a case like this, where it's based on a legal question, they have a fine shot on appeal."

Still, "they're going to have to contend with a thorough, well-written decision by a careful judge and that's not easy," Naughton added.

The ruling is so artfully rendered, in fact, that Oracle will have a tough time winning an appeal, according to Tyler Ochoa, an intellectual-property law professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law.

"This is by far the most careful and well-written opinion on software copyright I've ever read," Ochoa said via email. "I will be astonished if it is not upheld on appeal."

Alsup's ruling is similar to one made by an appeals court in the mid-1990s, which found "that the menu command structure of [the software program] Lotus 1-2-3 was original and creative, but that it was not copyrightable because it was also a method of operation," Ochoa added. "Although that was something of a controversial ruling at the time, it has widely come to be accepted law, and I would be astonished if the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court would take issue with it now."

Moreover, Oracle will not only have to convince the appeals court Alsup was wrong, but also "persuade a jury on retrial that the use was not a fair use" under copyright law, Ochoa added. "Oracle can continue pouring money down this sinkhole if it wants to, but it would be well-advised to concede defeat now."

Prior to Alsup's ruling Thursday, a jury cleared Google of patent infringement in the case.

(James Niccolai in San Francisco contributed reporting to this story.)

Chris Kanaracus covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Chris's e-mail address is

Join the newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Rocket to Success - Your 10 Tips for Smarter ERP System Selection
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Chris Kanaracus

IDG News Service
Show Comments





Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles


PCW Evaluation Team

Louise Coady

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

The printer was convenient, produced clear and vibrant images and was very easy to use

Edwina Hargreaves

WD My Cloud Home

I would recommend this device for families and small businesses who want one safe place to store all their important digital content and a way to easily share it with friends, family, business partners, or customers.

Walid Mikhael

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

It’s easy to set up, it’s compact and quiet when printing and to top if off, the print quality is excellent. This is hands down the best printer I’ve used for printing labels.

Ben Ramsden

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

Brainstorming, innovation, problem solving, and negotiation have all become much more productive and valuable if people can easily collaborate in real time with minimal friction.

Sarah Ieroianni

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

The print quality also does not disappoint, it’s clear, bold, doesn’t smudge and the text is perfectly sized.

Ratchada Dunn

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The Huddle Board’s built in program; Sharp Touch Viewing software allows us to easily manipulate and edit our documents (jpegs and PDFs) all at the same time on the dashboard.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?