I’m not sure Julia Robert’s use of that blonde wig and eighties cut-out dress when she leaned against Richard Gere’s car in Pretty Woman should be considered “fair use,” but perhaps a court might say otherwise. How does Julia’s transformation from wayward to womanly in that iconic 1990 film come into play in a fight between tech giants Google and Oracle over the use of copyrighted java? Because they both hinge on “transformative use.”
Google’s going to trial again? Say it isn’t so. I have to wonder how many lawyers Google, alone, employs. But, if you’re going to stand as one of the front-runners in today’s fast-paced, internet-driven services market, you have to be prepared for lawsuits. Google has been fending off some serious claims by Oracle in a copyright suit filed in San Francisco since 2010, but when the focus of the debate turned to expert witness testimony, we wanted to highlight the matter for discussion and debate. Oracle initially sued Google claiming improper use of copyrighted Java, particularly Google’s use of its application programming interfaces (“APIs”) on its Android platform, to allow developers who are familiar with Java to quickly convert their web apps to Android. Oracle is now reportedly seeking royalty damages in excess of $8 billion.
Initially Google argued, and the trial court agreed, that APIs were not subject to copyright. That ruling, however, was overturned by the Federal Circuit on appeal, which means Google’s remaining defense is whether its use of the APIs was “transformative,” which would make it acceptable under the Fair Use Doctrine. What standard of “transformative use” are the parties looking to? 2 Live Crew and their ripping parody of “Pretty Woman” in their 1989 album, “As Clean As They Wanna Be.” Please tell me you’re envisioning that iconic cover right now. Apparently the Supreme Court in a 1994 ruling, Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., found 2 Live Crew’s version of “Pretty Woman” so creative and original that it qualified as “fair use,” not copyright infringement. Oracle is arguing the opposite by claiming Google’s use of the Java APIs did nothing to transform the code. Google simply plugged it into to a larger body of work, but in no way altered it, which does not qualify, according to Oracle, as transformative.
Oracle has sought to exclude the testimony of Google’s computer science expert from opining that Google’s use of the Java code altered it sufficiently to qualify as a transformative use, claiming his opinion “flies in the face” of the Federal Circuit’s finding that Google was wrong in claiming its use was transformative simply because it incorporated other elements in the Android system. Google has fought back, stating the Federal Circuit never decided whether the work was transformative and specifically remanded the case so that issue could be decided by a jury. Are you finding both of those arguments a bit rambling and repetitive? Apparently so did the trial court judge when he lamented his role as the gatekeeper who has to “excise every detail of expert testimony on a granular level.” With reams of lawyers on either side fighting over every detail and every dollar, however, that is probably precisely what he will have to do.
If you feel it may be hard, not being a computer science guru, to make a determination as to whether Google’s use of the Java at issue was “transformative,” imagine how the jury is going to feel. In May, 2012, a jury found Google had infringed Oracle’s copyrights but they could not decide whether use of the code in question was “fair.” This will be the second trial and second jury that attempts to answer this question. It will require an expert with exceptional communication skills, who is as persuasive as Julia, to effectively break this Java jumble down and win over the potentially tech-savvy, but stubborn “Richards” in the jury box. That’s the expert we would find for them, anyway, if Google gave us a call.
What do you think? Do you believe Google will succeed on its “transformative use” argument or does Oracle stand to recover billions for the allegedly unfair Android use?