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Supreme Court sides with Google on API “fair use”, ending epic copyright clash with Oracle.

supreme court googls vs oracle

Google did not infringe on Oracle’s copyright by copying 11,500 lines of code from the Sun Java API for use in the Android Operating System (OS) the US Supreme Court has ruled, describing it as fair use in a landmark ruling.

“Google’s copying of the Java SE API, which included only those lines of code that were needed to allow programmers to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program, was a fair use of that material as a matter of law,” the court said April 5, in a 6-2 majority ruling that will be warmly welcomed by the open source enterprise community, which had rallied behind Google over the “chilling” case.

“Open source software development relies on the availability of and unencumbered access to software interfaces, including products that are compatible with or interoperate with other computer products, platforms, and services” as Red Hat earlier noted. Critics of the Oracle campaign had warned that if it won it could severely inhibit the ability of open source developers to create interoperable tools and platforms.

Oracle fired the first salvo in a decade-long battle when it sued Google over the company’s use of Java APIs, winning a first ruling in 2012. Oracle’s initial legal win was verturned in 2016 when a jury deemed Google’s actions to be fair use. That verdict was subsequently thrown out in 2018 by a higher court. Prior to reaching the Supreme Court, some analysts had estimated the damages could amount to $8.8 billion if Google lost.

(This is a handy detailed write-up including the case law from 2019)

See also: This CIO left school at 17 to join the Italian Army…

“The nature of the work at issue favors fair use. The copied lines of code are part of a ‘user interface’ that provides a way for programmers to access pre-written computer code through the use of simple commands. As a result, this code is different from many other types of code, such as the code that actually instructs the computer to execute a task,” the US’s highest court ruled. Justices Thomas and Alito dissented.

“As part of an interface, the copied lines are inherently bound together with un-copyrightable ideas (the overall organization ofthe API) and the creation of new creative expression (the code independently written by Google). Unlike many other computer programs, the value of the copied lines is in significant part derived from the investment of users (here computer programmers) who have learned the API’s system.

“Given these differences, application of fair use here is unlikely to undermine the general copyright protection that Congress provided for computer programs”, the court determined.

Red Hat and HP had been among those filing in support of Google, in a 2014 filing, arguing that “the use of computer program interfaces of others for compatibility and interoperability purposes is both ubiquitous and essential to the operation of information and communication technologies and infrastructures. This fact has become even more so in today’s ever more highly networked world.”

Oracle General Counsel Dorian Daley meanwhile had argued that: “Google’s true concern [is] that it be allowed the unfettered ability to copy the original and valuable work of others as a matter of its own convenience and for substantial financial gain.”

One of four statutory factors considered by the court was the “effect” of the copying in the “market for or value of the copyrighted work.” Here, six of the justices determined, “the record showed that Google’s new smartphone platform is not a market substitute for Java SE. The record also showed that Java SE’s copyright holder would benefit from the reimplementation of its interface into a different market. Finally, enforcing the copyright risks causing creativity-related harms to the public. When taken together, these considerations demonstrate that the fourth factor—market effects—also weighs in favor of fair use.”

IBM and Red Hat joined the legal clash in January 2020 jointly filing a “friend of the court” brief that argued: “Computer interfaces are not copyrightable. That simple, yet powerful principle has been a cornerstone of technological and economic growth for over sixty years. When published (as has been common industry practice for over three decades) or lawfully reverse engineered, they have spurred innovation through competition, increased productivity and economic efficiency, and connected the world in a way that has benefited commercial enterprises and consumers alike.”

Percona founder Peter Zaitsev was among those welcoming the news, describing it as “great news for the Software Industry as a whole and Open Source in particular. 

He added: “If the ruling would have gone another way and API definitions would be declared copyrightable, it would drastically stifle innovation by not allowing software companies to provide better implementations for the standard interfaces. The technology Industry as we know it today stands on many such Innovations.  IBM PC ‘Clones’ could exist because  its BIOS (low level operating system) APIs could be reimplemented by Competitors,  Linux re-implemented the POSIX standard. In the UNIX world even Oracle itself benefited a lot from being able to implement SQL Language in their own database software. 

“While the exact mechanics in those cases are different from the Oracle/Google situation, the general principle is the same – being able to provide alternative implementations for APIs, Protocols, and Programming Languages accelerates innovation and creates tremendous value for society by disrupting monopolies.”

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