Google beats Oracle in biggest programming copyright Supreme Court case ever

At long last, programming code's application programming interfaces are protected from Oracle's over-reaching claims.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Ten years ago, Oracle argued that Google had infringed Oracle's copyright, by copying the "structure, sequence, and organization" of 37 Java application programming interfaces (APIs) into Android. Google replied that an API is like an alphabet or a grammar. They're the fundamental elements used to create programs. Now, at long last, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has concluded what programmers had known all along: APIs can't be strictly copyrighted. Fair use must play its part. 

Ironically, in the 90s, both Oracle and Sun, Java's original owner, argued that software APIs shouldn't be covered by copyright. That was then. This is now. For the last decade Oracle has been desperately trying to monetize its failed Sun purchase by attempting to squeeze $9-billion dollars out of Google's use of Java APIs in Android. 

After a long-delayed hearing on Oracle v. Google in October 2020, SCOTUS ruled on April 5 that Google could legally use Oracle's Java API code when building Android.

In a 6-2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that "Google's copying of the API to reimplement a user interface, taking only what was needed to allow users to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program, constituted a fair use of that material." This overturned an earlier federal decision, which found that Google's Java API use had infringed Oracle's copyright.

Specifically, Oracle had claimed that Google had illegally copied about 11,500 lines of Java code, which set out 37 separate APIs. According to Oracle, Google's APIs had violated Oracle Java copyright because they had duplicated Java APIs' "structure, sequence, and organization."

Now, Google is free to use these Java APIs in Android. And, more importantly for the entire software development industry, companies will not be able to claim a hard copyright claim over APIs in general. Had they been able to assert strict copyrights over APIs, many have feared it would start a wave of copyright troll lawsuits, which would have made the patent troll lawsuits look like jay-walking tickets.

Alas, the case may not be completely done yet. 

While SCOTUS sided with Google on the specifics of this case, the Court also stated: "To decide no more than is necessary to resolve this case, the Court assumes for argument's sake that the copied lines can be copyrighted, and focuses on whether Google's use of those lines was a 'fair use.'" 

So, rather than deciding that APIs can not be de jure copyrighted, SCOTUS ruled that Google was in the right because of the "Copyright Act's fair use provision … The nature of the work at issue favors fair use."

Or, as SCOTUS Justice Stephen Breyer put it in the October hearing, "You didn't have to have a QWERTY keyboard on typewriters at the beginning. … But my God, if you let somebody have a copyright on that now, they would control all typewriters, which really has nothing to do with copyright."

Exactly so. 

As US District Court of Northern California judge William Alsup, one of the few judges who's also a programmer, who ruled in Google's favor years ago, wrote: An API is merely "a long hierarchy of over six thousand commands to carry out pre-assigned functions. For that reason, it cannot receive copyright protection -- patent protection perhaps -- but not copyright protection." Oracle lost its Java patent lawsuit long ago.

Historically, almost no one ever argued APIs could be copyrighted. While valuable, there's nothing creative about an API. It just spells out how external programs can work with the program or service. Uri Sarid, CTO of software integration company MuleSoft, wrote about this case several years ago. "APIs are quite utilitarian, like an ATM machine's operation: Slide your card here, punch your code there, select from a menu, and expect cash in return," Sarid said. "How could that be copyrighted?"

Heck, even Microsoft, no friend of Google, agreed with Google. In its amicus curiae SCOTUS filing, Microsoft stated programmers rely on "sharing, modifying, and enhancing previously developed code to create new products and develop new functionality." Without the ability to reuse functional code to create new things, "innovative follow-on development will be compromised." Indeed.

Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court. He was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh. Justice Thomas and Alito stood against the decision. The new Justice Barret hadn't been on the Court when the trial was heard and didn't participate in the decision. 

So, while this decision doesn't directly rule out that APIs can be copyrighted, it does make it clear that under the fair use doctrine, you can't stop other developers from freely using your APIs to build new programs. In other words, programmers can continue to use APIs in their projects just as they have for decades before.  

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