Google and Oracle have been in legal battle for around a decade about the interoperability of Android’s Java. It’s a battle in which Oracle claimed Google’s use of its Java code for building the Android platform constituted infringement while Google argued that its use of various portions of the application programming interface (API) fell under fair use. After much time and an initial court decision that claimed copyright decision in favor of Oracle, the United States Supreme Court has overturned the decision, judging that Google could legally utilize portions of Java API in the creation of Android.
“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 a fair use of that material,” the ruling declared.
The Court concluded that APIs can be considered different from other kinds of computer programs under copyright law.
One of the major differences in APIs noted by the Justices included the fact that rather that wholly copying Java to create the same function, Google utilized portions of Java in Android to create an ecosystem in which Java programmers could create Android apps - a matter the court declared to be transformative use.
“Google copied approximately 11,500 lines of declaring code from the API, which amounts to virtually all the declaring code needed to call up hundreds of different tasks,” the ruling goes on to say. “Those 11,500 lines, however, are only 0.4 percent of the entire API at issue, which consists of 2.86 million total lines. In considering ‘the amount and substantiality of the portion used’ in this case, the 11,500 lines of code should be viewed as one small part of the considerably greater whole.”
The ruling also goes on to attempt to establish a precedent and foundation regarding further discussion of API in regards to copyright and fair use.
“We do not overturn or modify our earlier cases involving fair use — cases, for example, that involve ‘knockoff’ products, journalistic writings, and parodies,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. “The upshot, in our view, is that fair use can play an important role in determining the lawful scope of a computer program copyright.”
“The Supreme Court’s clear ruling is 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,” Google Global Affairs SVP Kent Walker said in praise of the decision.. “We are very grateful for the support from a wide range of organizations, 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.”
Oracle, on the other hand, saw the ruling as a snapshot of Google’s overall control in the tech space and a sign of things to come.
“The Google platform just got bigger and market power greater – the barriers to entry higher and the ability to compete lower,” Oracle general counsel and Executive Vice President Dorian Daley wrote in a statement to Verge. “They stole Java and spent a decade litigating as only a monopolist can. This behavior is exactly why regulatory authorities around the world and in the United States are examining Google’s business practices.”
Whether in favor of app development or copyright protection, it would appear that at the API level, Google and Oracle’s case has created the precedent that fair use can be considered in the copy of portions of code. Epic Games’ Tim Sweeney saw this as a win, as shared on his Twitter, but the far-reaching consequences likely remain to be seen.