Guest post by Professor Pamela Samuelson, Berkeley Law School
In the past week 28 amicus curiae briefs were filed in the Google v. Oracle case, including one written by me and Catherine Crump (of which more below). All but two support reversal of one or both of the Federal Circuit’s copyrightability and fair use rulings.
Especially significant are IBM’s brief with Red Hat arguing against the copyrightability of computer interfaces and Microsoft’s brief criticizing the Federal Circuit’s unduly rigid fair use analysis and indifference to the need for flexible rules that promote interoperability in today’s highly connected world. The briefs are substantively excellent, and significant because these firms are such prominent developers of software.
For those interested in the case who are not computing professionals, I recommend the amicus briefs submitted by 83 computer scientists and by the Developers Alliance which explain the Java API technology and why reuse of Java declarations and interfaces generally is so important to enabling compatibility. Several other briefs, including one for the Center for Democracy and Technology et al., and another for R Street and Public Knowledge, offer numerous examples of compatible software systems that benefit consumers as well as software developers
By my count, more than half of the 28 amicus briefs focus only on the copyrightability issue and another 9 address both the copyrightability and fair use issues. Only 4—the Microsoft, Tushnet, Snow, and Rauschenberg Foundation briefs–address only fair use. This was a something of a surprise given that the fair use decision seems quite vulnerable to challenge. After all, a jury rendered a verdict in favor of Google’s fair use defense, and appellate courts are supposed to defer to jury verdicts. Several amicus briefs take the Federal Circuit to task for substituting its judgment on the merits for the jury’s as to issues about which there was conflicting evidence in the record. Also much criticized are the Federal Circuit’s analysis of the four fair use factors and the manner in which it weighed the factors together.
One very pragmatic reason why some amici would prefer that the Court rule on the copyrightability issue over the fair use issue is that fair use is a fact-intensive, complex, and much debated limitation on copyright. Google may be able to litigate software interface copyright cases for a decade or more, as it has done in this case, but startups and other small and medium-size companies as well as open source developers would prefer the certainty of a no-copyright-in-interfaces rule, as several amicus briefs pointed out. If the Court rules that interfaces are not protectable by copyright law, litigation over reuses of interfaces is much less likely. And if some developer does bring suit, chances are good that the case can be won on a motion to dismiss or for summary judgment
Software developer and industry association amici point to a longstanding consensus on the distinction between interfaces and implementations: interfaces should be free for reuse as long as developers reimplement the interfaces in independently created code. The Federal Circuit’s Oracle decisions have upset settled expectations in the industry, and if the Court upholds them, it would have, as Microsoft asserts, “potentially disastrous consequences for innovation.”
The American Antitrust Institute was among the amici that emphasized the potential for copyright in program interfaces to have anti-competitive effects by entrenching dominant firms and creating barriers for new entrants in the software business. This is particularly of concern in view of network effects which, even without interface copyright monopolies, make it difficult for users and developers to switch to new systems.
The Computer & Communications Industry Association and the Internet Association amicus brief provides a historical review of the evolution of software copyright caselaw. Although a few early decisions construed copyright as providing broad protection to program structures such as interfaces, landmark decisions by the Second and Ninth Circuits recognized that interfaces which constitute the functional requirements for achieving compatibility among programs should not be protectable by copyright law. Other courts followed these rulings. The Oracle decision deviates from this body of caselaw. Some amici regard interfaces as patent, not copyright, subject matter.
The amicus brief Catherine Crump and I co-authored and submitted on behalf of 72 intellectual property scholars positioned the pro-compatibility decisions within the framework of the Supreme Court’s 19th-century rulings in Perris v. Hexamer and Baker v. Selden, which originated the exclusion of methods and systems and their constituent elements from the scope of copyright; dozens of decisions applying these exclusions; their codification in 17 U.S.C. § 102(b); and caselaw applying these exclusions to software interfaces that enable compatibility. Our brief also explains why the District Court’s alternative ruling in favor of Google’s merger defense was consistent with Baker and its progeny and that merger provides a sound basis for finding that program interfaces that enable compatibility, such as the Java SE declarations, are unprotectable by copyright law.
Oracle will obviously have a different take on these issues when it files its brief due February 12. Amici in support of its position must submit their briefs within the following week.
Google will have an opportunity to file a reply brief in mid-March. Oral argument before the Court may be scheduled in late March.
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 Although the American Intellectual Property Law Association is one of the briefs in support of neither party, the substance of its arguments on both the copyrightability and fair use arguments are quite close to the positions of Google and pro-interoperability amici. The other “neutral” amici were the Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol Foundations which expressed concern about a possible interpretation of fair use that would undermine artistic freedom to engage in creative reuses by artists.