SCOTUS declares that Google’s use of Oracle’s Java code in the Android operating system is fair use

On April 5, 2021, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Google’s use of certain Java application programming interfaces (APIs) in its Android operating system was not a copyright infringement. and instead was fair use of Oracle’s Sun Java API because Google was using “only what was necessary to enable users to put their accumulated talents to work for a transformative new agenda.” In its ruling, the Supreme Court articulated important political considerations underlying its ruling, noting that, “given the programmers’ investment in learning the Sun Java API here, it might harm the public. . Given the costs and difficulties of producing alternative APIs with a similar appeal to programmers, allowing the application here would make the Sun Java API declaration code a lockout limiting the future creativity of new programs ”and would interfere with software applications. fundamental objectives of copyright law. In summary, the Supreme Court relied on political considerations relating to the ability of programmers to use existing code to support software interoperability, a common practice that many industry players have advocated as a necessary practice. to maintain the feasibility of mobile computing.

This case spans nearly a decade of litigation between Oracle and Google. After negotiations between Google and Oracle’s predecessor broke down for a license of the entire Java platform for the development of Google’s Android operating system, Google developed its own platform designed for use. exclusively with Android smartphone technology. While developing the platform, Google wrote millions of lines of unique code, but also copied 11,500 lines of code from the Java SE API. The API worked to identify and group tasks and invoke pre-written software to perform those tasks. Google’s own code was operating to actually perform the called task. After Oracle acquired the owner of the Java SE API and the corresponding copyright, Oracle sued Google for copyright infringement.

It is important to note that the Supreme Court did not address the question of whether the API qualifies for copyright protection. Instead, for the purposes of this case, the Supreme Court assumed that the API was protected by copyright and found that Google’s use of it was fair use and did not violate the copyright law. Writing for the majority, Breyer J. considered the four guiding principles identified in the fair dealing provision of the Copyright Act: (1) the nature of the copyrighted work author; (2) the purpose and character of the use; (3) the amount and the substantial nature of the part used in relation to the protected work as a whole; and (4) the effect of the use on the potential market or the value of the copyrighted work. 17 USC § 107. The Court found that all four factors weighed in favor of fair dealing.

The Supreme Court defined the nature of the work as a user interface, thus, the API was “inextricably linked” to an organizational system – which is not protected by copyright – and to a system of posting. implemented – which is protected by copyright (but has not been copied in this case). The Court found that overall, the program is further removed from the “copyright core” than most computer programs and that this weighs in favor of fair use.

The Supreme Court ruled that Google’s use of the program was transformative as its goal was to create new products through the Android platform. The Court concluded that this use was in accordance with the constitutional purpose of the Copyright Act to promote creative progress, which also weighed in favor of fair dealing.

With regard to the quantity and substantiality of the portion of code used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole, the Court did not consider the 11,500 lines of code as a single work. complete, but rather as a small part of a larger program consisting of several million lines of code, the rest of which Google has not copied. The court found that this factor weighed in favor of fair dealing.

Finally, considering the effect of use on the market, the file showed both that Google’s new smartphone platform was not a market equivalent of Java SE and that the Java SE copyright holder would benefit from reimplementing its user interface in a different market. The Supreme Court ruled that enforcement of copyright based on the facts of this case would cause “creativity-related damage to the public” promoting fair use.

The Court’s detailed analysis of the fair use of copyright in the context of software programming provides much needed clarification for software developers who engage in the common practice of using and reusing written interfaces. by others. The Supreme Court, however, left open the question of whether such a code is protected by copyright in law. In a scathing dissent, Justice Thomas wrote that this ruling “gutters copyright” and that the only reason the majority chose not to address the issue of ownership is copyright protectable. Whether such programming code is subject to copyright protection under the law is likely to be the subject of future debate and legal action alongside the ever-changing landscape of software programming.

2021 Goulston & Storrs PC. Revue nationale de droit, volume XI, number 98

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