In a 6-2 landmark ruling, the United States Supreme Court, on April 5th, 2021,
delivered the verdict in Google LLC vs Oracle America. The Bench decided in the
dispute between two tech giants where Oracle America, the copyright owner of
Java S.E., had accused Google LLC of allegedly copying a portion of Java's
Application Programming Interface (hereinafter API). The Java APIs enabled the
computer programmer to use pre-written codes. If such APIs are used in
conjunction with the computer hardware, it will permit a large number of
specific system tasks related to Android mobile operation. Google had acquired
Android, Inc. in 2005.
The lower court considered the act of Google as falling under the fair use
doctrine and freed them from liabilities. Oracle America challenged the decision
before the Federal Court, where the court reversed the lower court's conclusion
and held Google liable for copyright infringement.
In 2019, Google LLC filed a
petition for certiorari before the Supreme Court raising questions on the extent
of copyrightability of computer programs and the use of APIs as 'fair use. While
analyzing the fair use doctrine under 17 U.S. Code § 107, Google LLC posed two
issues of law before the Supreme Court in its petition for certiorari.
- Whether Java's API is copyrightable?
- Whether the Google's use of Java's API falls within the purview of 'fair
Before discussing the rationale applied by the Supreme Court in assessing the
applicability of fair use doctrine, it is pertinent to discuss the realm of fair
use doctrine under copyright laws of the United States of America.
The limitations of Fair Use Doctrine
The 17 U.S. Code § 107 discusses the limitations of the application of the fair
use doctrine. It guides the users on the applicability and regulations of the
doctrine, subject to endless variations of circumstances. The statute allows the
courts to adopt a broad interpretation of the provision on a case-to-case basis
regarding technological advancements.
While considering the issues determining
'fair use' in the alleged copyright infringement, the court found it necessary
to examine the statutory provision mentioned in 17 U.S. § 107 as they considered
them to be applicable in the context of computer programs related to the issues.
The factors stated in the provision for applicability of fair use doctrine under
the statute are as follows
- The nature and purpose of use, whether it is commercial or non-profit
- The nature of the copyrighted work;
- The amount and substantiality portion of the work used concerning the
copyrighted work as a whole;
- The effect of the use of such work over the potential market or value of
the copyrighted work.
However, the factors provided by the sub-section are not exhaustive and should
include other factors that are more pivotal in some contexts.
While discussing the nature of the copyrighted work, the Supreme Court took
notice of the fact that the API technology includes three parts
- implementing code
- method call;
- declaring code.
Since Google wrote its own implementing codes' performing the tasks that API
calls up and Oracle did not contend the violation of 'method call,' court
directly applied rationale to decide whether Oracle's copyrighted declaring
used by Google falls under the purview of fair use. It regarded the API as
an 'open tool' and was different from any other computer program.
As APIs allow
various programmers to access other codes, Google's act of copying the codes to
allow Java programmers to build Android applications is purely a transformative
and creative use. Thus, the Supreme Court pressed in favour of the fair use
Analysis of the Principles of Fair Use
While considering the purpose and character of the use, the court ruled that the
act of copying portions by Google as adding something new by altering the
copyrighted work gave a new meaning, expression, or message that will lie under
the fair use doctrine. It also ruled that by using Sun Java API, Google believed
to foster the usefulness of the Android-based Smartphone, and hindering such use
would vitiate the fundamental constitutional objective of copyright law, i.e.,
progress. It also heard that the reuse of API was common in programming.
The Bench mentioned that:
If the API labels are changed, then either the software would not be able to
continue to work anymore or a developer, he would have to learn a whole new
language to be able to use these API labels.
While considering the amount and substantiality of work copied, the court
realized that Google had copied 11,500 lines which constituted approximately
0.4% of 2.86 million lines of the entire set of Sun Java API computer code,
which included implementing code. The court noted that the objective of Google
was to create a different task-related system for smartphones and create a
platform to help achieve the goal. The question of the substantiality of work
copied was ruled in favour of Google as copying Java's API fostered proper and
transformative usage. Supreme Court again pressed on the application of fair use
doctrine in Google's favour.
Lastly, the court analyzed the position of Oracle and Google in the market to
determine losses suffered by Oracle if Google's act constituted copyright
infringement. On perusal of arguments and submitted evidence, the court regarded
Sun Java API and Android as two differently placed software, and it was
uncertain of Sun's ability to compete in Android's marketplace. The losses of
revenues and risk of creativity related harms to the public, when considered
together, convinced the court in favour of the fair use doctrine.
Upon lucid perusal of the factors crucial to determine the applicability of the
fair use doctrine in API-related copyright infringements, the court concluded
that Google reimplemented a user interface by taking what was needed to allow
the programmers to utilize their talents to work in a transformative program.
Google's act of copying the Sun Java API constituted fair use as a matter of
law. While passing the order, the court also categorically stated that it does
not overturn or modify precedents involving fair use in cases related to
journalistic writings and parodies.
The large swathes of the reasoning applied by the court in determining the
applicability of the fair use doctrine are true and conflate conflicting points
deterrent to the transformative and constructive use of API technology. However,
the rationale applied by the court can be countered on two points.
First, the court does not categorically discuss the copyrightability of computer
programs, i.e., whether developing codes and implementing codes are subject to
protection under the copyright act. A declaring code defines the scope of the
implementing code and enables the programmer to use it. The developing codes
per se, being highly functional like any other invention, triggers the
functioning of the pre-written implementing code and undoubtedly falls under the
garb of copyright.
The majority of the Bench considered the applicability of
fair use doctrine over the developing codes. This view of the court diverges
from the reasoning applied by the Court in Feist Publications, INC v. Rural
Telephone Service Co
., where the court considered that work original
created by the author even with the minor creativity should be
considered as copyrightable.
Rather than addressing the critical question of copyright protection and
applying fair use doctrine, the court, by and large, extends the application of
fair use doctrine in favour of Google. The U.S. Congress did not establish any
dichotomy between declaring codes and implementing codes, but the majority tries
to distinguish between the two. It would be erratic to grant more protection to
the former than the latter. It hampers the jurisprudence corresponding to the
copyright protection of the computer programs.
Second, the factors of fair use doctrine analyzed by the court do not confer
protected status to computer codes that Google copied for so-called
use. Upon critically analyzing the effect of alleged copyright
infringement on the parties' market, the court remains oblivious to the act of
Google copying the codes of Oracle by stating that Oracle was not in a position
to pose competition to the Android market any sooner. The court completely
disregards the fact that the foundations of the Android operating system were
laid down by using Java APIs that belonged to Oracle.
Thus, with due regard to the jurisprudence related to copyright laws, the act of
Google can be lucidly laid down as the act of using declaring codes of Oracle to
avoid coming up with anything fresh to work on its Android operating system.
There is nothing like 'fair use' about copying a copyrighted work verbatim and
use it as original against any competing platform
. – Court of Federal Circuit.