One email could cost Google billions

Andy RubinFlickr/Joi ItoAndroid cofounder Andy Rubin

One email sent by Android cofounder Andy Rubin in 2006 may end up costing Google billions in its ongoing legal war with Oracle. 

At the core of the case is whether or not Google infringed on Oracle’s copyright by putting key pieces of the Java technology into the mega-popular Android operating system.

Java was first developed by Sun Microsystems, a company that Oracle acquired in 2009. Shortly after the acquisition, Oracle filed a series of lawsuits against Google alleging infringement. 

To prove its case, Oracle’s legal team today dredged up an email from 2006, where Rubin acknowledged that the Java programming language APIs were copyrighted by Sun. This was reported by Vice Motherboard contributing editor Sarah Jeong on Twitter.

On the surface, this email shows that not only did Rubin, who was then leading Android, know that the Java APIs are copyrightable — but that Google was knowingly and wilfully circumventing Sun’s copyright. If and when the jury has to calculate damages owed to Oracle, this could end up seriously hurting Google.

Google, and the technology world at large, have been contending that APIs are not subject to copyright in the first place — it would make it legally difficult or impossible to build any kind of interoperability. That said, back in 2014, an appeals court found in favour of Oracle in this lawsuit and ruled that APIs are, indeed, copyrightable.

This email doesn’t necessarily sink Google’s case entirely: The lawsuit is still ongoing, and Google’s defence hinges on the concept of “fair use,” the claim that it was legally allowed to use the Java APIs in Android, regardless of whether or not Oracle can copyright them. 

And while on the stand, Rubin walked this email back a little bit, saying that he merely meant that the implementation of the APIs was copyrightable, not the APIs themselves. It’s a nerdy, but important, distinction.


But if the jury finds against Google in this case, there’s lots of buzz around the courtroom that Rubin’s bombshell email could still demonstrate “willfulness,” which is a big factor in determining the damages awarded to Oracle. With Oracle asking for $9 billion in damages, this one email could potentially tip the scales and cost Google millions or billions. 

So, as you’ve probably heard before: Be careful what you say on your work email account, or your company Slack channel, or anywhere a record is kept — you never know when and where it will come back to haunt you.

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