On April 5, 2021, the United States Supreme Court issued its much-anticipated decision in the long-running case of Google v. Oracle, a case that we have been following for nearly five years. In its long awaited decision, the Court held that Google’s copying of the “declaring code” from the application program interface (API) of Oracle’s Java SE platform when creating Google’s Android operating system constituted fair use under copyright law. By deciding the case on these grounds, the Court managed to sidestep the issue of whether the software code at issue was copyrightable in the first place. Instead, the Court simply assumed that it was, virtually guaranteeing that it will be forced to address the issue in a future case.
The saga that culminated in the Court’s decision dates all the way back to 2005 when Google acquired Android and began creating its now-famous Android software platform for mobile devices. Google’s goal was to create an open platform that would allow software developers to build mobile applications to run on it. The Java programming language, originally invented by Sun Microsystems which was later acquired by Oracle, was an obvious candidate for use in the Android platform as it was a popular programming language among software developers.
Shortly after Google’s acquisition of Android, Google began talks with Sun to explore the potential for licensing the entire Java platform. However, negotiations broke down after it became apparent that Sun’s requirement of interoperability was not compatible with Google’s vision for the Android platform. This left Google to build the Android platform on its own.
Creating the Android platform required roughly 100 Google engineers working for more than three years and required writing millions of lines of new code. Google did not write the entire platform from scratch, however. Instead, it copied roughly 11,500 lines of code from the Java SE program, consisting of 37 Java API packages. APIs are used by software programmers to simplify the creation of complex computer programs by allowing two programs to communicate with each other. Java’s API provides access to a collection of prewritten software programs that carry out a large number of specific tasks.
When Oracle Corporation acquired Sun in 2010, Google’s Android platform had been completed for several years and was already a notable success. Oracle promptly filed suit against Google alleging infringements of Oracle’s patents and copyrights. The first trial ended in a victory for Google when the district court ruled that the API packages were not copyrightable as a matter of law. That decision was overturned on appeal and remanded further proceedings on Google’s copyright infringement defense of fair use. Following a second trial, a jury found that Google’s copying constituted fair use, but this verdict was overturned on appeal when the Federal Circuit found that Google’s use of the declaring code was not a fair use as a matter of law. The Supreme Court then agreed to consider both the copyrightability and fair use questions. Continue reading ›