The USA Supreme Court in a decision delivered on April 5, 2021, had sided with the developers in protracted litigation that lasted more than a decade. The Court held that Google’s copying of the Java SE API (then known as Sun SE API owned by Sun Microsystems) for the development of Android OS, which included only those lines of code that were needed to allow programmers to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program, was a fair use of that material as a matter of law.
Oracle Copyright Case: Background
Google copied roughly 11,500 lines of code from the Sun Java SE relating to 37 packages. Google copied both the names given to particular tasks and the grouping of those tasks into classes and packages (known as “declaring code“). The copied lines are part of a tool called an Application Programming Interface (API). An API allows programmers to call upon prewritten computing tasks for use in their own programs. In 2010 Oracle Corporation bought Sun Microsystems and soon thereafter Oracle brought the lawsuit. The Suit initially involved patent and copyright infringement but got limited to copyright claims after a jury rejected the patent claims.
Oracle claimed that Google infringed its copyright by copying, for 37 packages, both the literal declaring code and the nonliteral organizational structure (or SSO) of the API. After multiple rounds of litigation, the case ended before the Supreme Court in certiorari on the Federal Circuit’s determinations regarding both copyrightability and fair use. The Court in a 6-2 decision dated April 5, 2021, ruled in favor of Google.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the Trump nominee who was not yet confirmed by the Senate when the case was argued in October 2020, did not participate in the case. The majority opinion was delivered by Justice Breyer, and a dissenting opinion was delivered by Justice Thomas. Microsoft, 83 Computer Scientists, Copyright Scholars, etc have filed amicus briefs in support of Google arguing “reasonable fair use of functional code enables innovation that creates new opportunities for the whole market to grow“.
Oracle vs. Google: Majority Opinion
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The Court did not decide on the copyrightability of the code and assumed for argument’s sake that the copied lines can be copyrighted. The Court held that only those lines of code that were needed to allow programmers to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program were a fair use of that material as a matter of law. While deciding on the fair use doctrine, the Court held that the “purpose and character” of Google’s copying was transformative. The Court held that reimplementing an interface can further the development of computer programs. The Federal Circuit’s contrary judgment is reversed.
The fact that computer programs are primarily functional makes it difficult to apply traditional copyright concepts in that technological world. Applying the principles of the Court’s precedents and Congress’ codification of the fair use doctrine to the distinct copyrighted work here, the Court concludes that Google’s copying of the API to reimplement a user interface, taking only what was needed to allow users to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program, constituted a fair use of that material as a matter of law. In reaching this result, the Court does not overturn or modify its earlier cases involving fair use.BREYER, J., for the majority
Google vs. Oracle: Dissenting Opinion
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Thomas noted the fact that Google sought a license to use the library in Android. But when the companies could not agree on terms, Google simply copied verbatim 11,500 lines of code from the library. Thomas J. noted the fact that Amazon paid for a license to embed the Java platform in Kindle. After Google released Android, Amazon used the cost-free availability of Android to negotiate a 97.5% discount on its license fee with Oracle. The dissenting opinion held that Oracle’s code at issue is copyrightable, and Google’s use of that copyrighted code was anything but fair.
Only after wrongly concluding that the nature of declaring code makes that code generally unworthy of protection does the Court move on to consider the other factors. This opening mistake taints the Court’s entire analysis.THOMAS, J., dissenting
The dissenting opinion did not agree with the concept of transformative relied on by the majority. Thomas J opines that the majority wrongly conflates transformative use with derivative use.
That new definition eviscerates copyright. A movie studio that converts a book into a film without permission not only creates a new product (the film) but enables others to “create products”—film reviews, merchandise, YouTube highlight reels, late night television interviews, and the like. Nearly every computer program, once copied, can be used to create new products. Surely the majority would not say that an author can pirate the next version of Microsoft Word simply because he can use it to create new manuscripts.THOMAS, J., dissenting
Thomas J. also dealt with the fact how Google’s actions significantly impacted Oracle revenues. The dissenting opinion also notes the fact that Apple and Microsoft chose to create their own declaring code.
By copying Oracle’s work, Google decimated Oracle’s market and created a mobile operating system now in over 2.5 billion actively used devices, earning tens of billions of dollars every year. If these effects on Oracle’s potential market favor Google, something is very wrong with our fair use analysis.THOMAS, J., dissenting
Emphasis added in the extracts.