December 5, 2017
In 2010, Oracle America, Inc. sued Google, Inc. for copyright infringement (and patent infringement). In the suit, Oracle claimed that Google’s Android mobile operating system (Android OS) infringed Oracle’s copyrighted Java programming language (which Oracle acquired from Sun Microsystems that same year). Specifically, Oracle claimed that Google’s use of the Java application programming interface (API) in Google’s Android OS was copyright infringement.p
An API is a set of subroutine definitions, protocols, and/or tools which make it easier for developers to build applications. Since Google wanted to make Android devices accessible to Java developers, Google copied Oracle’s Java API into the Android OS.
On May 31, 2012, the District Court of the Northern District of California ruled that APIs are not subject to copyright protection. The Court determined that the “replicated elements of the Java API packages—including the declarations and their structure, sequence, and organization—were not copyrightable.” The Court further determined that the merger doctrine bars anyone from claiming exclusive copyright ownership of the API because there is only one way to write the API declaring code, and that the API declaring code is not protectable because names and short phrases cannot be copyrighted.
Oracle appealed the District Court’s decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, and the Court of Appeals overturned the lower court’s ruling. On May 9, 2014 the Court concluded that the API declaring code is entitled to copyright protection, but the Court also remanded the case regarding Google’s fair use defense. The fair use defense, in this context, requires an alleged infringer to show that the use of the copyright protected material is a transformative use. A use is transformative if it adds something new with further purpose or different character.
After Google’s petition for certiorari was declined by the United States Supreme Court on June 29, 2015, a second trial began on May 9, 2016 (again in the Northern District of California). On May 26, 2016 the Court ruled that Google’s use of Oracle’s copyright protected Java API was entitled to the fair use defense because Google’s use of Oracle’s Java API was a reimplementation of the code which rose to the level of a transformative use.
This decision is significant because the copying and reuse of APIs is common practice in programming. Oracle is presently appealing the May 26, 2016 decision, and, if the Circuit Court rules in Oracle’s favor, the decision will not only affect Google. Java is a programming language that is very commonly used; nearly every website, application, or device has an API that facilitates communication with the Java programming language. If the Circuit Court reverses the District Court’s ruling and holds that Google’s use does not fall within the realms of fair use, other developers will be prevented from using the Java API in their own applications and operating systems. A reversal of the District Court’s holding that Google’s use is a fair use would also mean that the common practice of copying and reusing APIs in all fields will be chilled because developers will be potentially liable for copyright infringement.
Author: Greggory Dawson, Attorney
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