The US Supreme Court has held that Google’s copying of the Java SE API was fair use under copyright law.
Oracle owns the copyright for Java SE, a computer program that uses the Java programming language.
Google, without Oracle’s permission, copied a part of the program that allows a programmer to call up other software that, along with a computer’s hardware, can carry out tasks.
As the National Law Review noted,
The practice of using, and reusing, software interfaces written by others is common within the field of software engineering and development. Multiple federal circuits have held that software source code, as a whole, can be copyrighted, but the question as to what extent code can be copied, particularly API code, was an unanswered question.
After Google acquired Android in 2005, to allow its programmers to work with Java, Google copied about 11,500 lines of code pertaining to the Java API.
Lower courts have considered:
1. Whether Oracle could copyright the part of its code that Google copied, and
2. Whether Google’s copying was a “fair use” under copyright law and thus not an act of copyright infringement.
The Supreme Court assumed that the code was copyrightable but found that the copying was fair use.
As the Court noted,
The Federal Circuit described an API as a tool that “allow[s] programmers to use . . . prewritten code to build certain functions into their own programs, rather than write their own code to perform those functions from scratch.” … Through an API, a programmer can draw upon a vast library of prewritten code to carry out complex tasks.
As the Court explained,
To determine whether Google’s limited copying of the API here constitutes fair use, the Court examines the four guiding factors set forth in the Copyright Act’s fair use provision: the purpose and character of the use; the nature of the copyrighted work; the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.
Works of authorship (including books and lines of computer code) are copyrightable. However, the ideas contained in those works are not.
The Court found that
As part of an interface, the copied lines are inherently bound together with uncopyrightable ideas (the overall organization of the API) and the creation of new creative expression (the code independently written by Google).
The inquiry into the “the purpose and character” of the use turns in large measure on whether the copying at issue was “transformative,” i.e., whether it “adds something new, with a further purpose or different character.”
(As we discussed in this recent blog, the Second Circuit recently issued an important decision on what “transformative” means in the context of fair use in the art world.)
In addition, the 11,500 lines of code that Google copied were only .4% of the entire API at issue, which consists of 2.86 million total lines of code. Thus, the “substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole” was low.
Finally, the court found that the copying would have no impact on the market for the original work, as “Google’s new smartphone platform is not a market substitute for Java SE.” Further, Oracle could benefit from the use of its interface in a new market.
Applying the principles of the Court’s precedents and Congress’ codification of the fair use doctrine to the distinct copyrighted work here, the Court concludes 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 fair use of that material as a matter of law.
The decision does not overturn or modify earlier Supreme Court precedent involving fair use but does bring to a close a long-running dispute involving fair use as applied to APIs.
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