Supreme Court hands Google a victory in a $9bn case against Oracle

This puts an end to the biggest programming copyright Supreme Court case ever, but does not solve all the problems

The Supreme Court on Monday sided with Google in its $9bn decade-long copyright fight with Oracle over software in billions of Android phones. The Electronic Frontier Foundation hailed the ruling as “a fantastic win” for smaller companies trying to innovate. How is that so?

In the 6-2 opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer, the court found that Google did not violate copyright law when it used portions of Oracle’s Oracle’s Java application program interface to build the Android operating system. Siding with Google, the opinion found the copying constituted “fair use,” meaning Google didn’t have to get Oracle’s permission before using it.

“The fair use analysis is really going to set a precedent that's going to shape serious case law for many, many years to come,” Corynne McSherry, legal director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which filed an amicus brief on Google’s behalf, told Yahoo Finance.

“It’s really a fantastic win,” McSherry said, adding that the ruling means “other small companies who are trying to figure out ‘can I do this creative new innovative thing where I need to maybe build on somebody else's work?’ will have more comfort that ultimately what they're doing will be found to be lawful.”

To explain what's going on - ten years ago, Oracle argued that Google had infringed Oracle's copyright, by copying the "structure, sequence, and organization" of 11,500 lines of Java code or 37 Java application programming interfaces (APIs) into Android. Ironically, in the 90s, both Oracle and Sun, Java's original owner, argued that software APIs shouldn't be covered by copyright. But in a desperately trying to monetise its failed Sun purchase, Oracle then changed its mind and for the last decade, it has been attempting to squeeze $9bn dollars out of Google's use of Java APIs in Android.

Throughout this fight, Google insisted that an API is like an alphabet or a grammar. They're the fundamental elements used to create programs. Originally, a jury found in Google's favor, saying its usage of the Java code was indeed considered "fair use." But in 2018, the Federal Court of Appeals overturned that decision, ruling that Google did indeed violate Oracle's trademarks; that decision would have sent the case back to a California court to determine how much Google's parent company Alphabet would owe Oracle. But the Supreme Court decided to hear Google's appeal.

During that time, the back-and forth-case attracted dozens of amicus briefs supporting both sides, including one from fellow tech giant Microsoft (MSFT) - which came out in support of its rival Google and noted that the issue presented by the case has “profound consequences for innovation in today’s computer industry.”

Now, at long last, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has agreed and concluded what programmers had known all along: APIs can't be strictly copyrighted. Fair use must play its part. Now, Google is free to use these Java APIs in Android. And, more importantly for the entire software development industry, companies will not be able to claim a hard copyright claim over APIs in general. Had they been able to assert strict copyrights over APIs, many have feared it would start a wave of copyright troll lawsuits, which would have made the patent troll lawsuits look like jay-walking tickets.

In a statement, Kent Walker, Google’s SVP of Global Affair, said the court’s ruling was a victory for consumers, interoperability, and computer science.

“The decision gives legal certainty to the next generation of developers whose new products and services will benefit consumers. We are very grateful for the support from a wide range of organisations, from the National Consumers League to the American Library Association, as well as from established companies, start-ups, and the country’s leading software engineers and copyright scholars.”

Dorian Daley, Oracle’s executive vice president and general counsel, however, said that the court’s decision simply made Google’s platform bigger and more powerful.

“They stole Java and spent a decade litigating as only a monopolist can,” Daley said in a statement. “This behaviour is exactly why regulatory authorities around the world and in the United States are examining Google's business practices.”

Alas, the case may not be completely done, yet. While SCOTUS sided with Google on the specifics of this case, the Court also stated: "To decide no more than is necessary to resolve this case, the Court assumes for argument's sake that the copied lines can be copyrighted, and focuses on whether Google's use of those lines was a 'fair use.'" 

So, rather than deciding that APIs can not be de jure copyrighted, SCOTUS ruled that Google was in the right because of the "Copyright Act's fair use provision … The nature of the work at issue favors fair use."

Or, as SCOTUS Justice Stephen Breyer put it in the October hearing, "You didn't have to have a QWERTY keyboard on typewriters at the beginning… But my God, if you let somebody have a copyright on that now, they would control all typewriters, which really has nothing to do with copyright."

Exactly so. Historically, almost no one ever argued APIs could be copyrighted. While valuable, there's nothing creative about an API. It just spells out how external programs can work with the program or service. Uri Sarid, CTO of software integration company MuleSoft, wrote about this case several years ago. "APIs are quite utilitarian, like an ATM machine's operation: Slide your card here, punch your code there, select from a menu, and expect cash in return," Sarid said. "How could that be copyrighted?"

US District Court of Northern California judge William Alsup, one of the few judges who's also a programmer, who ruled in Google's favor years ago, also wrote: An API is merely "a long hierarchy of over six thousand commands to carry out pre-assigned functions. For that reason, it cannot receive copyright protection - patent protection perhaps - but not copyright protection." Oracle lost its Java patent lawsuit long ag

So, while this decision doesn't directly rule out that APIs can be copyrighted, it does make it clear that under the fair use doctrine, you can't stop other developers from freely using your APIs to build new programs. In other words, programmers can continue to use APIs in their projects just as they have for decades before.  

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