A jury unanimously and correctly found today that Google's use of 37 Java package names and some 11,000 lines of "declaring code" in its Android operating system was lawful fair use, showing once again that our robust fair use doctrine is doing the crucial work of ensuring copyright law doesn’t undermine innovation. This verdict comes after an earlier district court opinion finding the API labels in question uncopyrightable was reversed by the Federal Circuit and the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
The Google verdict is an an important validation of the idea that developing interoperable software need not require permission or a license. As Google attorney Robert Van Nest said in his closing arguments, the law expressly endorses fair use—it's a right, not an "excuse," as Oracle attorneys had claimed.
Still, the fair use victory is bittersweet. Judge William Alsup's previous opinion that the API labels in question are not copyrightable was the correct one, based on a reasonable reading of the copyright law in question. The Federal Circuit decision to reverse that opinion was not just wrong but dangerous. While developers of interoperable software can take some comfort in the fact that reimplementation may be fair use, a simpler and fairer solution would simply have been to recognize API labels as a system or method of operation not restricted by copyright.
The case is not yet closed. Oracle has announced that it will appeal the decision—at which point it will go back to the Federal Circuit, with a reported $9 billion still on the line. Should that appeal happen, the appeals court should at least partially redeem itself by respecting this jury's finding and leaving this important fair use victory intact.