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Google faces $8.8 billion copyright bill after Oracle wins latest round of Android Java API case

Google could owe Oracle Corp. billions of dollars for using Oracle-owned Java programming code in its Android operating system on mobile devices, an appeals court said, as the years-ng feud between the two software giants draws near a close. Google’s use of Java shortcuts to develop Android went too far and was a violation of Oracle’s copyrights, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled Tuesday. 

The case — first filed in 2010 — was remanded to a federal court in California to determine how much the Alphabet Inc. unit should pay. Oracle had been seeking $8.8 billion, though that number could grow. Google expressed disappointment and said it’s considering its next steps in the case, Bloomberg reported.

The dispute, which could have far-reaching implications for the entire software industry, has divided Silicon Valley for years between those who develop the code that makes software steps function and those who develop software programs and say their “fair use” of the code is an exception to copyright law. “It’s a momentous decision on the issue of fair use,” lawyer Mark Schonfeld of Burns & Levinson in Boston, who’s been following the case and isn’t involved. “It is very, very important for the software industry. I think it’s going to go to the Supreme Court because the Federal Circuit has made a very controversial decision.”

At issue are pre-written directions known as application program interfaces, or APIs, which can work across different types of devices and provide the instructions for things like connecting to the internet or accessing certain types of files. By using the APIs, programmers don’t have to write new code from scratch to implement every function in their software or change it for every type of device.

“The Federal Circuit’s opinion upholds fundamental principles of copyright law and makes clear that Google violated the law,” Oracle General Counsel Dorian Daley said in a statement. “This decision protects creators and consumers from the unlawful abuse of their rights.” Google and its supporters contend that the ruling, if left to stand, would harm development of new software programs and lead to higher costs for consumers. “We are disappointed the court reversed the jury finding that Java is open and free for everyone,” Google said in a statement. “This type of ruling will make apps and online services more expensive for users.”

Oracle said its APIs are freely available to those who want to build applications for computers and mobile devices, but draws the line at anyone who wants to use them for a competing platform or to embed them in an electronic device.

“The fact that Android is free of charge does not make Google’s use of the Java API packages noncommercial,” the three-judge Federal Circuit panel in Washington ruled, noting that Android had generated more than $42 billion in revenue from advertising. It also said that Google had not made any alteration of the copyrighted material.

The damages are likely to be hotly contested, with Oracle wanting more than the $8.8 billion it sought at the trial, and Google arguing the value is minimal, said lawyer Ping Hu, who heads the intellectual property group at Mirick O’Connell in Boston. The could mean more public information on how Google profits off an operating system that it offers for free.

The decision “is a major win for Oracle, but it’s not the end of the war,” he said.

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