Oracle won a big victory over Google on Friday when a U.S. appeals court reversed a trial judge's ruling in a legal clash between the two tech giants that could have broad impact across the software industry.

The ruling comes in a case in which Oracle accused Google of stealing its intellectual property by using elements of Oracle's Java programming system to create Google's popular Android mobile software, which has become the world's most widely used operating system for smartphones and tablets.

While a trial judge concluded two years ago that the Java components in dispute are not covered by U.S. copyright law, the appellate court said the judge was wrong about those components, which belong to a category of software tools known as application programming interfaces or APIs. Since APIs are widely used as building blocks for creating software that must interact with other programs, experts say the ruling could have broad implications for the software industry.

Oracle praised the decision in a statement from General Counsel Dorian Daley, calling it "a win for Oracle and the entire software industry that relies on copyright protection to fuel innovation and ensure that developers are rewarded for their breakthroughs."


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Google, however, said it was "disappointed by this ruling, which sets a damaging precedent for computer science and software development." Google said it was considering its options, which could include appeals.

With its ruling, the Washington, D.C.-based appellate court sent the case back to U.S. District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco, who must now consider a separate defense that Google advanced originally.

While arguing the APIs weren't covered by copyright, Google had also argued their use was legally protected under a "fair use" doctrine that allows copyrighted material to be used without permission in certain circumstances. A jury deadlocked on that defense and Alsup did not rule on it.

Even as Oracle and its supporters praised the appellate court for protecting intellectual property, some legal experts criticized the court's reasoning Friday and said it contradicted rulings by circuit courts in other parts of the country.

"It's not clear to me that this court has understood the role that APIs play in programming," said James Grimmelmann, a software programmer and University of Maryland law professor. Some experts said APIs are more like general concepts, or building blocks, rather than particular expressions of creativity.

If it stands, the ruling could make it more difficult for developers to build software that uses APIs to interact with other programs, said Forrester analyst Jeffrey Hammond, adding that it may increase "fear, uncertainty and doubt."

Contact Brandon Bailey at 408-920-5022; follow him at Twitter.com/BrandonBailey.