The Supreme Court sided with Google in Oracle’s API copyright case

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In a statement on MondayThe Supreme Court ruled that Google could legally use elements of Oracle’s Java Application Programming Interface (API) code when building Android.

“Google’s copying of the API to redeploy a user interface, taking only what was necessary to enable users to put their accumulated talents to work in a new and transformative program, was fair use of that material, ”the Supreme Court ruled in a 6-2 opinion, with one justice (Amy Coney Barrett) not taking part in the ruling. It overturned a previous federal decision, which found Google’s use of the API was an infringement.

The court’s decision concludes that APIs – which give programmers access to other code – differ significantly from other types of computer programs. “As part of an interface, the copied rules are inherently linked to non-copyright ideas… and the creation of new creative expression,” writes Justice Stephen Breyer in his opinion. Unlike many other computer programs, Breyer wrote, much of the copied lines of value came from developers investing in the ecosystem, rather than the program’s actual operations. Google used the API to let Java programmers build Android apps, which the court says is a fundamentally transformative practice.

“Google only copied what it took to allow programmers to work in a different computing environment without throwing out some of a known programming language. Google’s goal was to create a different task-related system for a different computing environment (smartphones) and to create a platform – the Android platform – that would help achieve that goal and popularize it. “

The decision is intended to specifically target APIs as a category. “We do not alter or modify our previous fair use cases – cases involving, for example,” knock-off “products, journalistic writings and parodies,” Breyer writes. The verdict largely depends on the ways in which API code enables new creative expression, which should promote fair use doctrine. “The result, in our view, is that fair use can play an important role in determining the legitimate scope of a computer program’s copyright.”

In the dissenting opinion, Judge Clarence Thomas argued that the court made an untenable distinction between implementing code (which had been identified as copyrighted in a previous ruling) and declaring it.

“Congress rejected categorical differences between declaring and implementing code,” Thomas wrote. “But the majority make just such a distinction. The result of this disruptive analysis is an opinion that makes it difficult to imagine a circumstance in which the indication of code remains copyrighted. “

Google and Oracle have been battling Android’s Java interoperability for over 10 years, spanning three trials and two separate professions. The current incarnation of the case revolves around whether Oracle can enforce its copyright on approximately 11,500 lines in Android’s codebase, representing 37 separate APIs. Google has independently developed the APIs, but they are clearly based on equivalent APIs in the Java code, designed to mimic and interact with the individual language. Oracle claims that the “structure, sequence, and organization” of the Android APIs is so similar that it violates Oracle’s copyright in the Java code.

In 2014, a federal appeals court ruled that the APIs may be copyrighted in a controversial decision overturning a ruling by Judge William Alsup. (The Supreme Court declined to hear Google’s appeal the following year, leaving the appeal ruling.) But that decision left open the question of whether Google’s implementation had violated Java copyright, and Google launched a second phase of the case arguing that the Android APIs were fair use. In 2018The same appeals court ruled that Google’s implementation was not fair use, putting the company at risk of $ 8.8 billion in damages. Today’s decision overturns that ruling, allowing Google to continue using the Android code without threat of a copyright claim.

In particular, then President Trump’s attorney general had formally petitioned the Supreme Court for the appeal to be effective. side with Oracle in battle.

Oral arguments for the Supreme Court case were held in October, citing a variety of flowery metaphors for what the APIs represented. In one exchange, Breyer compared Oracle’s API claims to owning a copyright in the QWERTY keyboard. “If you let somebody have copyright on that right now, they’d check all the typewriters,” noted Breyer, “which really has nothing to do with copyright.”

Google Global Affairs SVP Kent Walker praised the decision. “The clear ruling of the Supreme Court is a victory for consumers, interoperability and computing. The decision provides legal certainty for the next generation of developers whose new products and services will benefit consumers, ”said Walker. “We are very grateful for the support of a wide variety of organizations, from the National Consumers League to the American Library Association, as well as established companies, start-ups and the country’s leading software engineers and copyright scientists.”

Oracle, meanwhile, used the ruling to criticize Google’s dominance in the tech space. “The Google platform has just gotten bigger and the market power is greater: the barriers to entry are higher and the ability to compete lower. They stole Java and spent ten years suing like only a monopolist can. This behavior is exactly why regulatory authorities around the world and in the United States are investigating Google’s business practices, ”said General Counsel and Executive Vice President Dorian Daley.

Update April 5, 12PM ET: Addition of statement from Oracle.