Supreme Court to Decide Epic 10-Year Copyright Infringement Case

UPDATE: In a 6-2 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court found in favor of Google, holding that Google’s use of the Java API qualified as a fair use. The opinion is available here.

The “copyright lawsuit of the decade” is finally coming to a conclusion, as the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc.  The Court’s decision is immensely important to the computer software industry since the Court will decide if a software application programming interface (API) is protected by copyright. The Court may, for the first time in 25 years, address the copyright fair use doctrine by deciding if use of an API is a fair use. This case has a long and convoluted history, but it started in 2010 when Oracle sued Google, alleging that Google committed patent and copyright infringement by using Java application programming interface declarations in its Android platform. The patent claims were resolved, leaving the copyright infringement claim. After several rounds of decisions, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held that APIs were protected by copyright and that Google’s use of them did not constitute fair use. Google appealed to the Supreme Court seeking reversal of those decisions.

The origins of the dispute date back to the mid-2000s when Google was developing the Android mobile operating system.  At that time, Sun Microsystems owned the Java programming language and made it available for developers to use without a license. The Java language includes the Java application programming interface, which consists of libraries of pre-written code for routine functions. Each set of code is labelled with a declaration. Developers use the declarations to access and run the code in their software. The declarations make it easier for developers to write software because they spare developers the tedium of writing new code each time a routine function is needed. Google used the Java language to develop libraries of code for developers to use in creating applications to run on the Android system. To allow developers to use their existing Java programing knowledge, Google copied the syntax and structure of the declarations exactly, but authored its own implementing code. As a result, 3% of the code in the Java and Google libraries were identical.

The Supreme Court will decide if the Java interface declarations are protected by copyright. The U.S. Copyright Act grants copyright protection to original works of authorship, which includes software code. However, Section 102(b) of the Copyright Act expressly excludes methods of operation and ideas from copyright protection. However, a work of authorship merges into the idea and is ineligible for copyright protection if there is only one way to express the idea. Federal appeals courts reach differing conclusions about how these doctrines apply to methods of operation embodied in computer code. Some courts hold that no copyright protection is available for methods of operation in computer code. Other courts protect methods of operation if the method could have been written differently and still performs the same purpose. Yet, other courts dissect the software to determine the protectable and non-protectable components and then evaluate if the protectable components were copied. The Supreme Court will resolve this issue by addressing if, and to what extent, software APIs constitute copyrightable expression. If the Court holds that APIs are protected by copyright, the Court will decide if their use in new applications constitutes fair use. The Court’s ruling on fair use will be the first time since 1994 that the Court has addressed the fair use issue in any case.

The current circuit split in this area has made it difficult for developers and others in the software industry to know which tools they can freely use, and the extent to which their own work is protected under copyright laws. The Supreme Court’s decision will resolve these issues and provide much needed clarity. We plan to monitor this case and post an updated article when the Supreme Court issues its opinion, likely by the end of June 2020.

This article is provided for general information and should not be relied upon as legal advice for a specific situation. If you are in need of specific advice or legal representation, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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