The case Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc. conveys the essence of computer code and copyright law in the United States. The conflict centred on Google’s early versions of the Android operating system using parts of the Java programming language’s application programming interfaces (APIs) and around 11,500 lines of Oracle-owned source code. Since then, Google has migrated Android to a copyright-free engine without the source code, admitting to using the APIs but claiming that this was legal.
The United States Supreme Court ruled on April 5, 2021, that Google did not infringe on Oracle’s copyrights by copying 11,500 lines of Java SE API code.
Oracle first filed this lawsuit in the Northern District of California in 2011, alleging that Google violated its patents and copyrights in Java SE API code. Initially, the District Court divided the claims into three separate cases: one for copyright, one for patent, and a third for harm calculations.
Although the patent claims were dismissed by a jury, the copyright claims were not. Lower courts disagreed on whether Google’s usage counted as “fair use,” that would prevent an infringement ruling. Google filed a petition for certiorari after the Federal Circuit ruled that Google infringed the copyright, and thereafter, remanded the case to determine damages. The Supreme Court finally heard the arguments in early October 2020.
- Issues before the Court:
Two major issues were discussed by the Supreme Court. These questions were as follows:
Whether the Java API source code was protected by copyright. Or in general terms, whether the copyright protection extended to a software interface.
The majority did not rule on the copyrightability of the Java API, much to the chagrin of Justice Thomas, who wrote the dissent, and instead assumed for the sake of argument that the Java API was copyrightable for the purposes of its decision.
Whether Google Inc.’s usage of a software interface in the context of the creation of a novel computer program constituted fair use.
In response to the second question, the Supreme Court ruled that Google’s use of Sun’s source code for its own Android Platform was a “fair use” under copyright law.
- Court’s Consideration of Four Factors as per Section 107, Copyright Act:
The four factors codified in Section 107 of the U.S.A Copyright Act are used to assess fair use.
Origin of the Work—
The Court started their investigation with the second element, the copyrighted work’s origin. The Java API is a menu-driven guide that allows programmers to monitor task-performing computer programmes. The code inherently blends non-copyrightable and non-functional features with copyrightable and functional features. As a result of this combination, the Court determined that the essence of the code was not at the heart of copyright, and the element weighed in favour of fair use. Furthermore, the Court stated that the benefit of the Java API came from those, who did not own the copyright in the code, including programmers who had spent time and effort in learning the language.
Purpose and Nature of Infringing Usage—
The Court then looked at the first aspect, which was the purpose and nature of the allegedly infringing usage. Courts looked at this aspect and saw how the new usage changed the original work by incorporating something new that gave it a new expression, context, or message. The aim of Google’s use of the Java API was to extend the code’s application to mobile phones.
This required completely new parts of code to function in a “distinct and different computing world,” with Google only keeping the Java API code required to enable programmers to continue using a familiar programming language without having to develop or learn a new one. According to the Court, industry standards show that API code is often reused, reducing the need for programmers to learn new code languages on a regular basis.
The first element also takes into account commerciality and good faith. The Court held that commercial usage did not always imply fair use, arguing, that when measured against Google’s potentially transformative use, the commerciality of the use had no bearing on the overall factor.
Amount and Substantiality of Work Used—
The Court refused to rule in good faith, concluding instead that the first element indicated fair use. The “amount and substantiality of the work used” in the allegedly infringing work is the third fair use element. Google copied 11,500 lines of the 2.86 million lines of Java API code, or 0.4 percent. In the grand scheme of things, this was just a small portion of the code. However, even a small amount of copying may be considered infringement.
According to the Court, Google only copied the amount required for their programmers to continue building on the code language they had already learned. Furthermore, where the amount of copying is tied to a legitimate and transformative intent, the third factor usually favours fair use.
The primary goal of Google was to allow programmers to use their skills to develop new apps for Android smartphones. The Court expressed concern that if Google had not used the copied Java API code to build its new software, it would have been prohibitively expensive to develop the Android smartphone framework, which is contrary to copyright’s goal of promoting research and useful arts. As a result, the Court determined that the copied code was required in order for programmers to develop and upgrade revolutionary Android systems.
Impact of Copying on the Industry—
Finally, the fourth element considers the impact of copying on the industry. Owing to past failures, the court determined that Oracle, like Sun before it, was unlikely to reach the smartphone industry. Sun’s former CEO admitted in court that Google had little to do with their inability to enter such a market. Google’s platform caters to a completely different market than the Java API, which is geared toward laptops and desktop computers.
The Court stated that the programmers’ investment in learning the Java API language had a greater impact on Android’s performance than Oracle’s initial investment in developing the Java API. Since the “re-implementation of a user interface enables inventive new programming code to more easily reach the market,” the Court concentrated on the expense of creating a new code language—rather than building off the Java API—that would obstruct copyright’s basic innovation objectives. This dimension, according to the Court, favours fair use.
- Pervasive Role of this Decision in Indian Law Concerning Fair Use:
Sun Java API’s “declaring code” was assumed to be copyrightable by the Supreme Court. It decided not to overturn the Federal Circuit’s decision that this was, in fact, copyrightable. In that sense, the Oracle v. Google litigation journey has considerable persuasive value in India on the subject of API copyrightability.
The “fair use” doctrine is distinct from the “fair dealing” doctrine under Section 52(1)(a) of India’s Copyright Act of 1957 (hereinafter referred to as “the Act”).Since the rule specifically excludes computer applications, the fair dealing exception in Indian law does not apply to the facts in Oracle v. Google. Even though Section 52(1)(ab)of the Act contains a separate exception for interoperability, this exception would not apply because the copying by Google was not for interoperability.
Also, sub-clause (aa) does not seem to apply based on the evidence. None of the other exceptions in Section 52(1) of the Act appear to apply on the surface. To this extent, the Supreme Court of the United States’ decision in Google v. Oracle is of limited legal significance in India.
Nonetheless, it demonstrates that the Supreme Court can (and sometimes does) indulge in extraordinary sophistry to draw a specific decision, even though it deviates from precedent or even common sense. The Supreme Court’s decision on the “equitable” doctrine of “fair use” was far from equitable.
Perhaps this dissent would lead to an overturning at some point in the future. The dissent offers a rational alternative view to be regarded for other jurisdictions that assign compelling importance to US jurisprudence.
- Impact of this Decision:
Given the widespread use of APIs, the case of Google v. Oracle has been closely watched by the tech industry. A decision in Oracle’s favour might have had major implications for past and future software growth. The effect on interoperability, technological creativity, and the potential for bad actors to pick up the rights to old software and file lawsuits against companies that developed their software on what were supposed to be open standards, were among the concerns posed by opponents of the federal court’s decision, which included Google and other Android-based software developers.
If the decision is upheld, it is expected that businesses will be forced to enforce intentionally incompatible specifications in order to avoid the possibility of complicated lawsuits, reversing existing software development trends that have centered on improving interoperability between different services, allowing apps to communicate with each other, resulting in a more integrated platform for end-users.
An Oracle victory may have stifled software development by preventing copyright holders from using APIs to build interoperable alternatives by reverse engineering, as is usual in open-source software development.
Experts warned, however, that a ruling in Google’s favour could weaken copyright protection for software code developers, allowing rivals with more capital to produce better products from smaller firms, and reducing the incentive for innovation within the industry.
This ruling is a significant victory for Google, which was facing billions in damages. It also emphasizes the challenges that courts face when balancing copyright rights for source code against economic and technological advancement.
The Supreme Court deferred the ruling on whether functional elements of computer software are copyrightable in the first place until a later date. Nonetheless, the Court’s recognition of the general value of fair usage in software proceedings is applaudable, as well as in favour of public interest as it would enable designers, developers, and other consumers to use their gained expertise and experience with software interfaces in subsequent platforms.