A decade-long legal battle between Google and Oracle reached the U.S. Supreme Court in October, 2020. This case attracts unusual interest because it could significantly impact innovation in the software industry. Two major issues in the case include whether Oracle can claim a copyright on Java APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) and whether Google’s use of the APIs constituted “fair use,” a defense for a copyright infringement claim.
When Google developed the Android operating system for mobile phones, it decided to make the platform interoperable with Java, a popular programming language in the developer community. In order to do so, Google reimplemented several Java APIs, which are interfaces that grant access to particular functions in a program. With the APIs, developers who write applications for Android can utilize the existing functions of the underlying platform and avoid having to start from scratch.
Oracle, who bought the company that owned the Java platform, sued Google for copying the Java APIs in 2010. In May 2012, Judge William Alsup of the Northern District of California ruled that APIs are not copyrightable. Distinct from patent law, the Copyright Act protects expressions but does not protect any “idea, procedure, process, system, or method of operation.” If the expressions, in this case the API codes, are too closely related to their functions so that developers have to write them in only one way to perform a particular task, they are inseparable from the task and do not quality for protection.
On one hand, re-implementing or copying APIs has been a widespread practice in the industry. Providing copyright protection to the APIs could forbid a vast number of applications that currently use the codes from operating. On the other hand, some people argue that providing copyright protection to the APIs would encourage innovation by rewarding the developers who write the codes.
In 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed the district court’s decision. The Federal Circuit held that APIs are copyrightable and left open the possibility that Google might have a fair use defense. Google filed a petition asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Federal Circuit’s decision, but the Supreme Court denied certiorari. The case then went back to the district court for a trial on the fair use defense. In 2016, a jury found fair use and delivered a verdict in favor of Google. In 2018, the Federal Circuit set aside the jury’s verdict as a matter of law. In 2019, Google filed another petition asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review both decisions by the Federal Circuit. The Supreme Court granted the petition, and oral arguments were heard via telephone on October 7, 2020.
During the oral arguments, the Supreme Court justices seemed to be skeptical about Google’s argument that the codes are not subject to copyright protection but showed more sympathy with the fair use defense. Justice Roberts mentioned that “the only reason it was necessary” for Google to use the API code was that it had been “very successful” and “it seems a bit much to penalize (Oracle) for that.” Justice Neil Gorsuch pointed out that both Apple and Microsoft had created mobile operating systems without copying the Java interfaces and questioned Google’s belief that it had no choice.
According to a software developer who worked on the Java interface, if Google loses the copyright argument but wins on the fair use defense, it would be a “weak win” for the rest of the software industry because fair use turns on the merits of a particular case. The defense does not necessarily apply to other API users, but the implications of the holding on the copyright claim could be devastating. The Supreme Court has not issued its opinion yet, but this case will surely impact the software industry in the future.