On 26 May 2016 a jury in the District Court for the Northern District of California unanimously upheld that Google’s use of Oracle’s APIs constitutes a “fair use” under the U.S. Copyright Act (full text here). The battle between Oracle and Google begun in 2010 when Oracle sued Google for using JAVA APIs, owned by Oracle, without permission. API stands for Application Programming Interface and is a set of instructions which allows different types of software to communicate to each other. When Google started the implementation of its Android Operating System (OS), despite writing its own version of JAVA, it copied some features of Oracle’s APIs in order to facilitate app developers, already familiar with them, in writing programs for Android. Therefore Oracle claimed a copyright on JAVA APIs and the infringement of the copyright by Google.
On 31 May 2012 Judge Alsup (Northern District of California) ruled that APIs cannot be subject to copyright under the U.S. Copyright Act (full text here) which does not protect purely functional things, i.e. “process, system or methods of operation” (17 U.S. Code § 102). He motivated that in the situation at issue the taxonomy “is composed entirely of a system of commands to carry out specified computer functions”, therefore, “to accept Oracle’s claim would be to allow anyone to copyright one version of code to carry out a system of commands and thereby bar all others from writing their own different versions to carry out all or part of the same commands”. Oracle appealed and on 9 May 2014 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed the ruling (full text here), establishing that JAVA APIs are copyrightable, while leaving open the possibility of a “fair use” defense in Google’s favor. In reaching its conclusion, the Federal Circuit underlined that “a set of commands to instruct a computer to carry out desired operations may contain expression that is eligible for copyright protection”. Therefore, even if a computer program is functional by definition, according to the Court, can be protected by copyright as long as it is original and its underlying idea could have been expressed in multiple ways by the author. On October 2014, Google filed a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court requesting the review of the Federal Circuit’s decision. The U.S. Supreme Court denied Google’s petition on June 2015. Therefore, the case returned to the District Court and a jury agreed that Google’s re-implementation of JAVA APIs is protected by fair use.
This decision constitutes a big relief for all developers out there which are used to re-implement each other’s APIs in performing their everyday work. A different finding by the jury could have caused a chaos in the “programmer’s world” as it could have been the begin of numerous copyright claims with a consequent slowdown of the IT progress, at least in the long run. Nevertheless, the most founded decision was Judge Alsup’s ruling in 2012, when he ruled that computer programs cannot be protected by copyright law. In fact, all programs are functional for their own nature, therefore the consideration that the same functional scope can be performed by a variety of software is without relevance in order to establish the copyrightability of computer programs. What matters from a juridical standpoint is that in computer programs there is not an actual (but only a fictious) dichotomy between idea and expression (which is the core requirement for copyrightability), instead the two merge with the consequence that APIs should not be protected by copyright, as Judge Alsup’s ruled in 2012. Nevertheless, Oracle plans to appeal, let’s see what’s next!
Elisabetta Coronel Vera
District Court for the Northern District of California, 26 May 2016, Oracle America, Inc. v. Google, Inc.