Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc. (Supreme Court 2021)
In a 6-2 decision authored by Justice Breyer, the Supreme Court has held that Google’s copying of the JAVA API naming convention was a fair use as a matter of law. The court did not decide the question of whether the API was copyrightable in the first place.
In his dissent, Justice Thomas (joined by Justice Alito) argues that the majority opinion “disregards half the relevant statutory text and distorts its fair-use analysis. . . . Oracle’s code at issue here is copyrightable, and Google’s use of that copyrighted code was anything but fair.”
- Opinion: 18-956_d18f
The key lines from the case for patent attorneys:
Majority: [U]nlike patents, which protect novel and useful ideas, copyrights protect “expression” but not the “ideas” that lie behind it.
Dissent: Computer code occupies a unique space in intellectual property. Copyright law generally protects works of authorship. Patent law generally protects inventions or discoveries. A library of code straddles these two categories. It is highly functional like an invention; yet as a writing, it is also a work of authorship. Faced with something that could fit in either space, Congress chose copyright, and it included declaring code in that protection.
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The case involves the software interface or Application Program Interface (API) for Oracle’s Java programming language. What we’re really talking about here are the names of the various functions that a programmer might memorize such as “Math.max(a,b)” which returns the greater of two inputs. Java is divided up into “packages” of function calls such as max.
Java is a popular language with many millions of skilled programmers. As Google developed its Android platform, it wanted to simplify the adoption process for app developers. As such, it chose a language that the programmers know – Java. The one problem is that Oracle wanted a substantial royalty and so Google instead recreated the entire language, including the functionality of thousands of function-calls.
What did Google copy?: It copied the naming convention of the functions (Math.max(a,b)) and their organization. This is thousands of function names organized into 37 Packages. Oracle claimed copyright to these names and their organization. The Federal Circuit agreed with Oracle that (1) the API is protectable under copyright and (2) that Google’s use was not a fair use.
In its fair use analysis, the court placed substantial weight on the fact that the value of Java’s API is based upon the fact that “those who do not hold copyrights, namely, computer programmers, invest of their own time and effort to learn the API’s system” rather than in the inherent creativity of the expression. Thus, the “‘nature of the copyrighted work’ points in the direction of fair use.” Although the Supreme Court found Google “precisely” copied the JAVA API, it still found the use transformative — because it was being used on a handheld rather than a laptop. For substantiality, Google only copied 11,000 lines of code. The court found that insubstantial since it was less than 1% of Java as a whole. Finally, regarding market impact, the court found that Sun was unlikely to be able to compete in the Android marketplace and that the copying by Google created a lots more market opportunity for others.
Obviously, there is lots more to this opinion. Read it via the link above.