Google vs Oracle: Google’s Use of Program Interface - a Fair Use

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In the recent celebrated case of Google vs. Oracle, the US Supreme Court found Google’s use of Java Application programming interface (API packages) a fair use. In 2018, the Federal Circuit ruled in favor of Oracle, to which Google appealed to this decision in the Supreme Court in 2019. The Court agreed in 2019 to consider questions such as the copyright protection to the software interface and Google use of software interface for creating new computer programs constitute fair use. Such questions were delved by the Court for reaching out a settlement.

Court’s observation

Few excerpts which the Court observes:

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…. 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.

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[Image Source: gettyimages]

While delivering the opinion, the majority held that the material was copyrightable but applying the factors for guiding the use of the Copyright Act, the Court viewed the use of Google as fair use. The four factors were: The purpose and character of the use; The nature of copyrighted work; The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work

Keeping the factors alive in the present case, the Court held that the code resembles the copyrighted work being a part of the computer program, it still differs from another kind of copyrightable computer code. The Court held it to be “inextricably bound together” with the division of computing tasks; the idea of organizing tasks into what we have called cabinets, drawers, and files, an idea that is also not copyrightable;…the use of specific commands known to programmers, known here as method calls (such as java.lang.Math.max, etc.).

The court observes, “That fact diminishes the fear, expressed by both the dissent and the Federal Circuit, that application of “fair use” here would seriously undermine the general copyright protection that Congress provided for computer programs. And it means that this factor, “the nature of the copyrighted work,” points in the direction of fair use.” Adding to this, the majority held, “Here, Google’s use of the Sun Java API seeks to create new products. It seeks to expand the use and usefulness of Android-based smartphones. Its new product offers programmers a highly creative and innovative tool for a smartphone environment…. Google, through Android, provided a new collection of tasks operating in a distinct and different computing environment. Those tasks were carried out through the use of new implementing code (that Google wrote) designed to operate within that new environment.”

While relying on the fact that Google did copy 11,500 lines, the Court viewed such amount and substantiality in view of “several million lines which the Google did not copy,” and explained that the copied lines were for a valid and transformative purpose. The Court observes, “Google’s basic objective was not simply to make the Java programming language usable on its An-droid systems. It was to permit programmers to make use of their knowledge and experience using the Sun Java API when they wrote new programs for smart phones with the Android platform. In principle, Google might have created its own, different system of declaring code. But the jury could have found that it's doing so would not have achieved that basic objective. In a sense, the declaring code was the key that is needed to unlock the programmers’ creative energies. And it needed those energies to create and to improve its own innovative Android systems.

Dissenting opinion

Giving the dissenting opinion, authored by Justice Thomas stating that the Court reached the unlikely result bypassing the major question that whether the software code at issue here is protected by Copyright Act. It concluded, “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.

Author: Saransh Chaturvedi (an advocate) currently pursuing LLM from Rajiv Gandhi School of Intellectual Property Law (IIT Kharagpur).  In case of any queries please contact/write back Global Patent Filing us at support@globalpatentfiling.com.

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