Handing a big win to Google, a federal judge on Thursday cleared away Oracle's last big claim in a high-stakes lawsuit over Android, the Google software that has become the world's most popular smartphone operating system.
Oracle promptly vowed to appeal. But the ruling by U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who decided that federal copyright law doesn't apply to Google's use of key elements of Oracle's Java programming system, means Oracle will collect only minor damages in a case where it once sought up to $6 billion.
"This is now effectively a total loss for Oracle, across the board," said Brian Love, a Stanford Law School expert on technology and intellectual property law. "It's absolutely the best possible case for Google."
Oracle can still seek damages for some copyright violations that were previously found in the case. But both sides had agreed those violations were relatively minor, involving only a handful of files that make up a tiny percentage of the Android program. Under a previous agreement between the parties, the judge will decide on awarding statutory damages, which the law sets at a maximum of $150,000.
Alsup has already dismissed the jury that rendered partial verdicts during a weeks-long trial of the complex case, in which both sides fielded squads of high-priced attorneys and sent their top executives to testify.
That issue has been closely watched across the tech industry, where some experts have warned that applying copyrights to APIs would create unreasonable legal hurdles for developers who use APIs to build new software applications.
Alsup gave a nod to that concern in his written decision Thursday. "To accept Oracle's claim would be to allow anyone to copyright one version of code to carry out a system of commands and thereby bar all others from writing their own different versions to carry out all or part of the same commands," he wrote. "No holding has ever endorsed such a sweeping proposition."
But the judge was careful to keep his 41-page order narrowly focused. At several points, he emphasized that virtually all of Google's Android code was written independently, without copying Oracle's proprietary software. And he concluded that the structure of the disputed APIs amounted to an organizing "system" or "method of operation," which is explicitly exempted under U.S. copyright law.
"This order does not hold that Java API packages are free for all to use without license," Alsup wrote. "Rather, it holds on the specific facts of this case, the particular elements replicated by Google were free for all to use under the copyright act."
A Google spokesman hailed the decision as a victory "for collaboration and innovation." Oracle, meanwhile, criticized the judge's findings in a statement that said the ruling could "make it far more difficult to defend intellectual property rights against companies anywhere in the world."
In addition to seeking billions in damages, Oracle had hoped to win a court order that would force Google to rewrite Android or pay Oracle a share of its future advertising profits from Android mobile gadgets. That could have been a major setback for Google, which has bet its future growth on a strategy that relies on Android to draw mobile Internet users into a variety of other Google services.
While the loss is a setback for Oracle's prestige, analysts were split on whether it will have a financial impact on Oracle's business.
"I don't see it as a material loss for them right off the bat, other than their legal expenses," said Al Hilwa, a software industry expert at the IDC research firm.
Gartner analyst Mark Driver, however, said in a recent interview that the outcome could encourage other companies to find new ways of using Java programming tools without paying Oracle for a license. That could erode Oracle's control over Java and potentially cut into future revenue, he said, although Java is not a major source of Oracle's earnings.
Some jurors felt Oracle's IP claims might not be in the public's best interest.
...the jury had a strong pro-Google bent during both the patent phase, which Google won, and the copyright phase, which ended with a split verdict.
Oracle - after spending millions litigating this case and dragging in some of the world's most famous tech CEOs to testify in a federal courtroom - had never even come close to winning.