The Supreme Court’s ruling in Google v. Oracle has the potential to expand software developers’ freedom to build on existing products, while also limiting software copyright protections.
On Monday, April 5, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a lower-court ruling and held that Google’s Android smartphone-operating system did not infringe Oracle’s Java-related copyrights.In particular, the lawsuit focused on application programming interfaces (APIs), which are packages of computer code that allow different software applications to communicate with each other – essentially the building blocks of app development. Oracle alleged that Google improperly copied more than 11,000 lines of Java API code when it developed Android. Google responded that this API code was functional, noncreative, and could not be written in a different manner.
The Supreme Court assumed API code is subject to copyright protection, but decided Google’s actions and copying parts of the Java API code was “fair use” and did not infringe the asserted copyrights. In its ruling, the Court noted that “Google reimplemented a user interface, taking only what was needed to allow users to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program.” The Court also noted the copying in this case was just 0.4% of the 2.86 million lines of the Oracle API code.
This ruling comes at a time when software and app developers, as well as industry giants such as Microsoft and IBM (both of whom supported Google in this case), are emphasizing the importance of fair use of software interfaces in order to encourage iterative improvements on software programs and to enhance interoperability among programs.
While this ruling is significant for software developers, the Supreme Court left a crucial question unanswered: whether API code is even subject to copyright protection at all. When explaining why it did not address that question, the Court pointed to “rapidly changing technological, economic, and business-related circumstances.”
The Supreme Court’s decision deviates from prior copyright law regarding software code, and may forecast further deviation and loosening of protections in the future. For now, software developers may feel cautiously more secure when building their own programs that incorporate the code of others.