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Android faces potentially major copyright problems

There are new allegations that Google has directly copied between 37 and 44 Java source files in Android, and it’s tough to tell if this will be a dis

By PETER WHITE

Published: 3 February, 2011

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There are new allegations that Google has directly copied between 37 and 44 Java source files in Android, and it’s tough to tell if this will be a dismissible event or a major headache for Google.

Directly copying these files is a major accusation, especially as Oracle is currently suing Google for patent and copyright infringement related to Java. Initial reaction to the news has been that this isn’t a major issue. So far, most are saying that all the files in question appear to be test files that aren’t important to Android overall and they likely aren’t shipping on Android units, so the racket is over nothing. In a technical sense, these observations and objections are spot-on. The problem here is that the legal sense and the technical sense are incompatible here.

From a legal perspective, these files create an increased liability for Google. Current copyright laws in the US do not govern or make exceptions for how source code trees work, how pasted script relates to other licenses or if it matters whether such files make their way to the final consumer product.

Legally, the most relevant question appears to be: “Did Oracle approve of and authorize the copying and potential distribution of these files?” In short, the answer is no. Google appears to be in the wrong because it replaced a public license with a different open source license when it potentially distributed these files. The change in license means that the Android shipped to handsets will be considered an unauthorized copy of these Java files.

This matters because Oracle wants to receive a per-handset royalty check on every Android device shipped, and this code-copying gives them some strong leverage. ‘Those files we took aren’t important’ doesn’t sound like a great legal defense, and issues like this mounting up could very well incline a judge to feel that Google is in the wrong.

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