Price of unfair use: Oracle granted new trial on damages against Google

By: Ryan Z. Ullman, Executive Technology Editor

What’s the license price of 11,000 lines of Javascript SE code? Google and the tech community are about to find out.

The Federal Circuit on Tuesday reversed a jury verdict and denial of judgment as a matter of law in Oracle’s copyright infringement suit against Google for use of Oracle’s Javascript SE API (application programming interface). Oracle America, Inc. v. Google LLC, 2018 WL 1473875. The court remanded the case to the district court for a new trial solely on the damages Google will pay Oracle in what will be the third trial in this case.

Oracle claimed close to $9 billion in its initial suit for Google allegedly infringing Oracle’s copyright by copying verbatim without authorization the declaring code and SSO of 37 Java API packages—11,500 lines of Oracle’s copyrighted code – for use in Google’s Android smartphones. This was after negotiations between Oracle and Google had reached an impasse and Google decided to “[d]o Java anyway and defend [its] decision, perhaps making enemies along the way.”pexels-photo-67112

After reviewing all of the factors, the Federal Circuit concluded that allowing Google to commercially exploit Oracle’s APIs would not advance the purposes of copyright. Although Google could have furthered copyright’s goals of promoting creative expression and innovation by developing its own APIs, or by licensing Oracle’s APIs for use in developing a new platform, it chose to copy Oracle’s creative efforts instead. The court reasoned that

“there is nothing fair about taking a copyrighted work verbatim and using it for the same   purpose and function as the original in a competing platform. Android’s release   effectively replaced Java SE as the supplier of Oracle’s copyrighted works and   prevented Oracle from participating in developing markets. This superseding use is      inherently unfair.”

Oracle America, Inc. v. Google LLC, 2018 WL 1473875 at 23.

The Federal Circuit’s decision will reverse the second jury verdict in this case since it was initially filed in 2010. At Oracle’s first trial, the jury found that Google infringed Oracle’s Java Standard Edition platform copyrights, but was deadlocked on the question of whether Google’s copying the code API was fair use. Regardless, after the verdict, the district court found that the API packages were not copyrightable as a matter of law and entered judgment for Google. Oracle Am., Inc. v. Google Inc., 872 F. Supp. 2d 974 (N.D. Cal. 2012).

Oracle appealed the district court judgment to the Federal Circuit, which found the code/SSO copyrightable and in turn remanded with instructions to reinstate the jury’s infringement verdict and for further proceedings on Google’s fair use defense. In response, Google filed a petition for certiorari on the copyrightability determination, rather than petition the Federal Circuit for rehearing. The Supreme Court denied certiorari in 2015 after calling for the views of the Solicitor General, who expressed agreement with the Federal Circuit and recommended denying review.

Tech industry response

Some involved in the tech industry are worried about potentially increased costs of software and application development as a result of the decision. Others aren’t so sure the Federal Circuit’s decision will have much of an effect.

Mike Masnick from Tech Dirt thinks the Federal Circuit’s decision was completely wrong, and “insanity.”

Masnick says “the [Federal Circuit] does an awful lot of handwaving around historical precedent to justify its decision to basically start from scratch in going through the fair use four factors. As [I]’ve discussed multiple times, one of the problems with the four factors test is that it allows a court to choose who it likes better, and then twist the four factors to give it the outcome it wants.” Masnick also argues, contrary to the Federal Circuit’s insistence, that API is not copyrightable under 17 U.S.C. § 102, which says:

In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.

According to Masnick, an “API is pretty clearly a procedure, process, system or method of operation — it’s just instructions on how to access certain elements, similar to a recipe.”

For Reuters, Google spokesman Patrick Lenihan said, “This type of ruling will make apps and online services more expensive for users.” “We are disappointed the court reversed the jury finding that Java is open and free for everyone.”

On the other side, in a press statement, Dorian Daley, Oracle’s general counsel, wrote, “The Federal Circuit’s opinion upholds fundamental principles of copyright law and makes clear that Google violated the law. This decision protects creators and consumers from the unlawful abuse of their rights.”

What about programmers who suddenly have copyrightable material they didn’t have before?

It goes without saying that many programs and languages have come out since 1978, which extends copyrights established after that year usually 70 years past the death of the holder. Now that APIs, for the foreseeable future, are copyrightable, should software developers hire lawyers to seek out infringers and get their cut?

Such efforts would probably not be very rewarding.

Because these developers didn’t expect that their APIs were protected by copyright, they wouldn’t have registered their copyrights. This means that they could only seek damages for unregistered copyright infringement, which are limited to actual damages.

Actual damages would be difficult to accurately calculate in these cases because there wouldn’t be any history of licensing revenue for the developers to look toward to establish damages. The plaintiff would thus have to resort to estimating a count of violations and a fair licensing price, which means the recoveries would likely be very low.

In addition, parties cannot be reimbursed for their attorneys’ fees for unregistered copyright claims so there would be even lesser incentive to litigate with fees taking a large chunk of an already small reward. 17 U.S.C. § 412.

Either way, the potential exists for unregistered copyright cases to pop up sometime in the future in the right circumstances. Software developers should pay close attention to Oracle v. Google to see what kind of damages are awarded at trial and what arguments Google presents.

This third trial on damages is probably not the last stop on the Oracle v. Google litigation train, but it is bound to make an impact on copyright law and software development practices moving forward, as it has done already.


Author: Ryan Ullman

Loves the outdoors and coffee.


Does Patent Trolling Actually Put Innovation at Risk?

By Haneen Daham

Many practitioners are vaguely acquainted with the concept of patent trolls, but are unfamiliar with its nuances. On a superficial level, one might recognize that the term “patent troll” is a pejorative moniker used to refer to a patentee that does not manufacture a consumer product.[1] This name is typically traded for a more neutral alternative: non-practicing entities (NPEs). Rather than make, use, or sell new products and technologies, trolls obtain essentially defunct patents to force third parties to purchase licenses.[2] They accomplish this by waiting for an industry to utilize a patented technology and then force the alleged infringers to either pay up or litigate.[3] Patent trolls can be divided into three categories: (1) those that purchase other companies’ controversial patents to assert them against an industry; (2) those that originally sold products but have either completely or largely closed their operations to focus on patent licensing; and (3) those that act as agents to help assert patents on behalf of patent owners for a fee.[4] Despite these variations, the business model of the average “troll” is largely uniform: (a) accuse a company of infringing a patent and offer a license for a royalty on sales; and (b) sue the target company if it does not agree to a license.[5]

According to critics, “trolls” do not contribute to innovation because they have no interest in finding business solutions or encouraging technology development, partnerships, or cross-licensing opportunities.[6] Their goal is simply to maximize profit margins from litigation, which is possible given the current patent climate. For one, the understaffed and underfunded United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) is inundated with hundreds of thousands of ambiguous and dubious patent applications, some of which slip under the proverbial radar and get approved.[7] These “bad” patents are ultimately seized by patent trolls who then exact a toll on companies that commercialize certain technologies.[8] For companies that become targets of trolls, the high cost of litigation resulting from judicial uncertainty leaves them with no choice but to settle. If the high cost of litigation fails to deter a company from pursuing litigation, the severely constrained avenues of defense might do it. Ordinarily, a company’s patent portfolio would bolster its case against an infringement charge; however, it holds little value when dealing with a patent troll because trolls do not make or sell products, thus, the “target company has no basis for filing a countersuit, and [] no leverage to create an incentive for a . . . business resolution.”[9]

As patent trolls expanded their victim pool, Congress responded by proposing the Patent Reform Act of 2005[10] (“PRA”)—the most comprehensive change to patent law since the passage of the Patent Act of 1952. As it relates to patent trolling, the PRA proposed to give trolls a harder time in court by lowering the threshold for invalidating patents, thereby giving the target company a fighting chance to challenge dubious patents seized by trolls. Although the PRA was eventually passed as the Patent Reform Act of 2007, many inventors voiced dissatisfaction with the Act’s effect on the patent industry, arguing that the new rules failed to fix the underlying problems that lead to patent troll lawsuits. Thus, they’ve called on Congress and the White House to, once again, reform the patent system. However, critics contend that the patent system does not need fixing because there is no evidence that trolls hinder innovation.[11] This camp argues that calls for reformation are driven by a few large companies that do not want to pay inventors. They maintain that patent trolls strategically file suits in lucrative industries, but are not responsible for the recent surge in patent-related dockets. However, recent research suggests otherwise.

Three empirical studies—cited by the White House and the Congressional Research Service—provide “strong confirmation that patent litigation is reducing venture capital investment in startups and is reducing R&D spending, especially in small firms.”[12] Research reveals that patent trolls cost defendant firms $29 billion per year in out-of-pocket fees and destroy over $60 billion in firm wealth per year.[13]

In light of this evidence, what should an attorney do when representing new inventors and startups facing an infringement allegation from an NPE?

  • Be sure to comply with all notice requirements—failure to do so will allow the NPE to assert an easy willfulness claim.
  • Submit a list of clarifying questions to the complaining NPE to understand how the troll’s patent applies to the allegedly infringing technology. This will help the alleged infringer look for contradictions in the patent, which might reveal inequitable conduct, in order to devise a defense strategy for a possible pre-trial settlement. Note that trolls sometimes hope to scare new companies into paying for a license without a reasonable basis for alleging infringement. Thus, this step proves incredibly important in identifying whether there is a reasonable basis for the claim.

[1] Robert P. Merges, The Trouble with Trolls: Innovation, Rent-Seeking, and Patent Law Reform, 24 Berkeley Tech. L. J. 1583, 1587 (2009).

[2] Jeremiah Chan and Matthew Fawcett, Footsteps of the Patent Troll, 10 Intell. Prop. L. Bull. 1 (2005).

[3] See Chan and Fawcett, supra note 2 at 1.

[4] See Chan and Fawcett, supra note 2 at 1-2.

[5] See Chan and Fawcett, supra note 2 at 3.

[6] See Chan and Fawcett, supra note 2 at 3.

[7] See Chan and Fawcett, supra note 2 at 4.

[8] Michael Risch, Patent Troll Myths, 42 Seton Hall L. Rev. 457, 459 (2012).

[9] See Chan and Fawcett, supra note 2 at 4.

[10] H.R. 2795, 109th Cong. (2005). Later enacted as H.R. 1908, 110th Cong. (2007).

[11] See, e.g., Stephen Haber and Ross Levine, The Myth of the Wicked Patent Troll, The Wall Street Journal, June 29, 2014, available at

[12] James Bessen, The Evidence Is In: Patent Trolls Do Hurt Innovation, Harvard Business Review, Nov. 2014, available at

[13] James Bessen & Michael J. Meurer, The Direct Costs from NPE Disputes, 99 Cornell L. Rev. 387, 408 (2014).