by Dennis Crouch
When Google wrote its program-interface (API) for Android, the company made a strategic decision to mimic the method call structure of Java. Java is an extremely popular and powerful programming language and Google determined that free-riding on Java popularity would facilitate its catch-up game in the third-party app marketplace. As an example, Google used the Java method header “java.lang.Math.max(a,b)”. When called, the “max” function returns the greater of the two inputs. In Android’s API, Google copied a set of 37 different Java “packages” that each contain many classes and method calls (such as “max()”). Overall, Google copied the header structure for more than six-thousand methods. Although Java is offered for both open source and commercial licenses, Google refused to comply with either regime.
Java’s originator Sun Microsystems was known for broadly sharing its creations without enforcing its IP rights. That aura changed when Sun was purchased by Oracle and certainly when Oracle sued Google for copyright infringement, inter alia.
In the Copyright lawsuit, the district court held that the API method headers were not protectable under copyright. However, the Federal Circuit reversed on appeal — finding the Java API taxonomy copyrightable as a whole. In particular, the appellate panel led by Judge O’Malley rejected the idea/expression merger doctrine since there are many other ways that functionally equivalent method-calls could have been constructed besides those found in Java. “Merger cannot bar copyright protection for any lines of declaring source code unless Sun/Oracle had only one way, or a limited number of ways, to write them.”
Now, Google has petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari asking:
Whether copyright protection extends to all elements of an original work of computer software, including a system or method of operation, that an author could have written in more than one way.
Here, Google references 17 U.S.C. 102(b) which bars copyright protection for “any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of [its] form [of expression].” And, Google pushes-back against the notion that the merger doctrine accounts for the limits of 102(b) as suggested by the Federal Circuit.
Google also interestingly notes that the Federal Circuit opinion here “erases a fundamental boundary between patent and copyright law.” However, rather than supporting software patents, Google argues that copyright protection here would serve as an end-run around the limitations set by Alice Corp.
Just last Term, this Court confirmed that, while some software-related patent claims may be eligible for patent protection under 35 U.S.C. § 101, many are not. Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int’l, 134 S. Ct. 2347 (2014). Like Section 102(b) of the Copyright Act, Section 101 of the Patent Act protects future innovation by preventing anyone from “ ‘inhibit[ing] further discovery by improperly tying up the future use of’ the building blocks of human ingenuity.”
Extending copyright protection to methods and systems of operation would undermine the limits on patent protection.
The argument is interesting because it turns the usual analysis on its head. Ordinarily folks argue that copyright and patent should be complementary and that overlap should be avoided. Here, however, the petitioner argues that copyright should not cover a particular subject matter area precisely because it is not covered by patent. This also generally suggests that the case will have an impact on software patent eligibility.
The petition was filed by Daryl Joseffer’s team at King & Spalding and I give a more-likely-than-not chance of grant. In this type of case, the Supreme Court is likely to request input from the Solicitor General and I would expect that the SG/White-House would support grant. If granted, the Federal Circuit will almost certainly be reversed. The merger doctrine is a mess and genuinely needs clarity. The difficult question in my mind is whether the court will be able articulate a reasoned boundary between software that is protectable and that which is not.
In an amicus brief (supporting certiorari) a group of computer scientists (with the Electronic Frontier Foundation) argues that companies should not be able to use copyright to prevent others from interfacing with their systems.