[Google v. Oracle] SCOTUS | Google’s copying of the Java SE API, taking only what was needed to allow programmers to put their accrued talents to work in a transformative pro­gram, constituted fair use

Supreme Court of The United States: In a major decision in the copyright dispute between Google and Oracle over copying certain lines from Oracle’s Java SE API (Application Pro­gramming Interface) code; the SCOTUS while deciding in favour of Google, held that 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 decided the issue with a ratio of 6:2, with Justice Stephen Breyer authoring the majority opinion. He was joined by John Roberts, C.J., and Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, JJ. While Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, JJ., dissented. Amy Coney Barret, J., took no part in considering or deciding the matter.

Facts: Oracle America, Inc. owns a copyright in Java SE, a computer platform that uses Java computer programming language (invented by Sun Microsystems). In 2005, Google acquired Android, seeking to build a new software platform for mobile devices. To allow the millions of programmers familiar with the Java programming language to work with its new Android plat­form, Google copied roughly 11,500 lines of code from the Java SE pro­gram. The copied lines are part of a tool called an Application Pro­gramming Interface (API). An API allows programmers to call upon prewritten computing tasks for use in their own programs. Oracle had claimed to be owed as much as $9 billion, while Google claimed that its use of the code was covered under the doctrine of fair use and therefore not subject to copyright liability.

Issues Involved: Over the course of a prolonged litigation, the following points of consideration emerged-

  • Whether Java SE’s owner could copyright the copied lines from the API.
  • Whether Google’s copying constituted a permissible “fair use” of that material freeing Google from copyright liability.

The Federal Circuit had ruled in Oracle’s favour and held that the portion is copyrightable and Google’s copying did not constitute a “fair use”.

Significant Observations: The SCOTUS had to review the Federal Circuit’s determinations vis-à-vis copyrightability and fair use, therefore in order to settle the matter ‘for argument’s sake, the Court assumed that the material was copyrightable. The Court discussed the dispute under the following important heads-

  • Regarding Copyright- The majority observed that the objective of copyrights and patents as per the US Constitution is to “promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writ­ings and discoveries.” It was observed that copyright encourages production of works that others might cheaply reproduce, by granting the author an exclusive right to produce the work for a period of time. However, in order to dilute the negative consequences of such exclusivity, the Congress and the Courts have limited the scope of copyright protection to ensure that a copyright holder’s monopoly does not harm the public interest. The Court also noted that the dispute involves 2 aspects enshrined in Section 107 of US’ Copyright Act, namely- copyright protection cannot extend to “any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, princi­ple, or discovery”; a copyright holder may not prevent another person from making a fair use of a copyrighted work.
  • Regarding Fair Use- The majority noted that ‘fair use’ is a flexible doctrine which takes account of changes in technology. “Computer programs differ to some extent from many other copyrightable works because computer programs always serve a functional purpose. Because of these differences, fair use has an im­portant role to play for computer programs by providing a context-based check that keeps the copyright monopoly afforded to computer programs within its lawful bounds”. The Court also observed that fair use question is a mixed question of fact and law, and the re­viewing courts should appropriately defer to the jury’s findings of un­derlying facts, but the ultimate question whether those facts amount to a fair use is a legal question for judges to decide de novo. “The “right of trial by jury” does not include the right to have a jury resolve a fair use defense”. Applying these observations to the current dispute, the Court noted that it needs to scrutinize the issue vis-à-vis the four guiding factors specified in the Copyright Act’s fair use provision-

The purpose and char­acter of the use In order to inquire about the “purpose and character of the use”, it must be examined whether the copying at issue was “trans­formative,” i.e., whether it adds something new, with a further pur­pose or different character. The Court observed that Google’s limited copying of the API is a transformative use. Google copied only what was needed to allow programmers to work in a different compu­ting environment without discarding a portion of a familiar program­ming language. Google’s purpose was to create a different task-related system for a different computing environment (smart phones) and to create the Android platform which would help achieve and popularize that objective. Google’s purpose was therefore consistent with that creative progress that is the basic constitutional objective of copyright itself

The nature of the copyrighted work- 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 prewritten computer code through the use of sim­ple commands. As part of an interface, the copied lines are inherently bound together with non-copyrightable ideas i.e. the overall organization of the 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 (computer programmers in this case) who have learned the API’s system. Given these differences, application of fair use here does not undermine the general copyright protection that Congress provided for computer programs.

 Amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole- Observing that the 11,500 lines of code that Google copied, even though which amounts to virtually all the declaring code needed to call up hundreds of different tasks; however the lines in question form only 0.4 % of the entire API at issue, which consists of 2.86 million total lines. Therefore the 11,500 lines of code should be viewed as one small part of the considerably greater whole. “Google copied these lines not because of their creativity or beauty but because they would allow pro­grammers to bring their skills to a new smartphone computing envi­ronment”.

Effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work- The Court noted that Google’s new smartphone platform is not a market substitute for Java SE. it was also pointed out that Java SE’s copyright holder would benefit from the reimplementation of its interface into a different market.

 Dissenting Opinion: Disagreeing with the majority, Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito observed that the nature of the copyrighted work (which in their opinion was the sole factor possibly favoring Google) cannot by itself support a determination of fair use because holding otherwise would improperly override Congress’ determina­tion that declaring code is copyrightable. They also pointed out that, “The majority purports to save for another day the ques­tion whether declaring code is copyrightable. The only ap­parent reason for doing so is because the majority cannot square its fundamentally flawed fair-use analysis with a finding that declaring code is copyrightable. The majority has used fair use to eviscerate Congress’ considered policy judgment”. [Google LLC v. Oracle America Inc., No. 18–956, decided on 05-04-2021]


Sucheta Sarkar, Editorial Assistant has reported this brief.

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