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Supreme Court sides with Google in Oracle API copyright suit

The Supreme Court ruled 6-2 that Java APIs used in Android phones are not subject to American copyright law, ending a longstanding legal battle between Google and Oracle.

The U.S. Supreme Court has sided with Google in a decade-long battle with Oracle over Java APIs and whether they're protected by American copyright law.

In a decision Monday, the Supreme Court ruled 6-2 that Google's use of code copied from Java APIs to build its Android mobile operating system was fair use.

"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," according to the ruling.

The decision brings an end to a legal back and forth between the two tech companies over the use of about 11,500 lines of code used by Google developers to write programs for Android. Oracle sued Google in 2010 and sought $8.8 billion in damages on the grounds that the then-nascent Android operating system violated Java patents and copyrights. But Google maintained that Android used a so-called "clean room" methodology and had committed no wrongdoing. 

Google petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court twice to consider the case, once in 2014 and again in 2019, as the companies continued to fight over the API copyright decision. The Supreme Court granted Google's petition in November 2019 and, after hearing arguments in October 2020, issued a ruling on Monday in favor of Google, putting the matter to rest.

After the ruling, Oracle decried the Supreme Court's decision.

"The Google platform just got bigger and market power greater," Oracle spokeswoman Deborah Hellinger said in a statement. "The barriers to entry higher and the ability to compete lower. 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."

API copyright vs. intellectual property rights

Advocates for Google's side saw peril in an Oracle victory, arguing that it could set a precedent that would stifle innovation in application development

Others, like Jason Bloomberg, president of IT advisory and analysis firm Intellyx, said the decision gives APIs the legal authority to be used as intended.

APIs, he said, aren't on the same level as proprietary software. APIs are code that enable software programs to talk to each other, not perform operational functions.  

"Being able to share those, access those, without worrying about copyright restrictions goes to the heart of what an API is all about," Bloomberg said. "But if the court had found the other way, it could have very well shut down the entire API economy, which would've had a major adverse impact on business."

Forrester analyst David Mooter said the Supreme Court got it right by noting that copyright protects expressions of ideas, not the ideas themselves.

Take how to construct a room, he said. He may describe it a certain way, but the idea is non-copyrightable because other architects could express the idea differently through their own drawings.

Similarly, APIs open the door to what a computer could potentially do, but it's the implementation code that is the expression of that idea, telling the computer what to do.

"Although the court did not say that code declaring an interface idea is or is not copyrightable, the fact it straddles the world of both non-copyrightable ideas and their copyrightable expressions gave them enough wiggle room to say it's a gray area, and that grayness lends more support for invoking fair use principles of the public interest and ensuring innovation is not stifled," Mooter said.

API copyright and IP

The Supreme Court's decision is seen by analysts as a win for the tech community, but whether APIs are copyrightable is still murky, according to Bloomberg. App and API developers will have to navigate the fair use statute going forward.

"It's still an open question as to whether or not [APIs] are copyrightable and whether or not there would be any point to copyrighting an API if its use would be fair use in any case," Bloomberg said. 

Fair use means the ability to use copyright-protected work without first seeking permission in certain circumstances. The Supreme Court's decision means even if an API is copyrightable, use of that API by a developer at another company is considered fair game, Bloomberg said.

Holger Mueller, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research, said, while Supreme Court's ruling is good news for the API community, it could harm intellectual property rights in the long term.

"Think someone has a very successful API to run apps -- for example, Java -- and someone copies that API with the intent to build a mobile platform -- for example, Android -- and then becomes the market leader on the planet … the consequence is that API creators will rethink their API strategies."

Developers could be forced to make layers of APIs, one that is public-facing and falls under fair use, and a proprietary API accessed strictly through licensing and licensing agreements. Mueller said that makes creating next-generation applications much harder for enterprises and developers.

Not the first time

The Google vs. Oracle case was not the first time the Supreme Court has faced the challenge of software copyright.

In 1995, the Supreme Court decided in Lotus Dev. Corp. v. Borland Int'l, Inc. that copyrights did not extend to a computer program user interface, according to Tyler Ochoa, a law professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law and one of the lawyers who signed an amicus brief in favor of Google during this case.

"Ever since then, the general assumption in the software industry has been that the organization of an API likely is not copyrightable," he said. "This decision essentially maintains the status quo. The majority didn't rule on the copyrightability of an API, but I think it implicitly did. It certainly has language in the opinion that suggests that the organization of an API is entitled to less protection than other types of software code, if any."

TechTarget News Director Chris Kanaracus contributed to this report.

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