The Supreme Court of the United States has handed Google an unequivocal triumph in what has been dubbed ‘the copyright case of the century’. A majority opinion of the Court held that Google’s copying parts of Oracle’s Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) for the Java programming language is permissible as “fair use” under the Copyright Act.
The dispute between Oracle and Google dates back to 2005 when Google acquired Android and decided to use the Java programming language, then owned by Sun Microsystems until it was later acquired by Oracle. Google copied 37 packages from the Java API to develop a version of Java for the Android platform and enable programmers to build upon their Java skills to more easily migrate to Android. The packages included tasks fundamental to the use of the Java language, such as arithmetic, file access, user display, and text formatting. In 2010, Oracle sued Google for copyright infringement. Over the next decade, the dispute was litigated twice at the district court and the court of appeals before the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
The Supreme Court analyzed the four guiding factors of the “fair use” doctrine in copyright law as applied to Google’s copying of the Java APIs. First, the nature of the Java APIs as copyrighted works favors fair use because the copied content is merely a programming interface, and not implementing code that instructs the computer how to implement a task. Per the court, the value of the Java API in significant part derives from the value that computer programmers invest to learn the API’s system.
The Court also found Google’s use to be “transformative”, in a way that “adds something new, with a further purpose or different character” to the original Java API. According to the Court, “Google’s use of the Sun Java API seeks to create new products. It seeks to expand the use and usefulness of Android-based smartphones. Its new product offers programmers a highly creative and innovative tool for a smartphone environment”.
Exploring the amount of copying, the Court found that while Google copied about 11,500 lines of code, it is less than 0.5% of Oracle’s entire Java APIs. The Court then explored the fourth and final fair use factor – the “effect” of the copying in the “market for or value of the copyrighted work. The Court found Sun’s ability to compete in Android’s marketplace to be uncertain, and uncertainty in Google’s actions being the source of Sun’s lost revenue. The Court also expressed concerns of creativity-related harms to the public if Oracle’s copyright in the Java API is enforced against Google.
CLICK HERE to read the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc.