Copyright Case of The Century – Oracle v/s Google

The lawsuit initiated by Oracle against Google for allegedly copying some of the Java Standard Edition API (Application Programming Interface) has worked up and down the U.S legal system creating two jury trials and numerous appeals.

Background of the case:

Oracle initiated a lawsuit in the San Francisco Federal District Court in the year 2010 that Google’s Android platform infringed upon its copyright through a medium called Java SE (Standard Edition).

Sun Microsystems had created the Java language, thereby acquiring copyright over the said platform, used by programmers to develop and build programs that can work on any personal computer. Oracle acquired Sun Microsystems, and soon after this, Oracle charged Google with copyright infringement for using a part of the Java SE platform’s program while developing the Android platform for programmers.

Google had negotiated with Sun Microsystems to use the Java SE platform owned by them for developing a new software platform for mobile devices, but the deal fell through. Eventually, Google copied a segment of the Java SE platform code and created a new software platform for mobile devices with the help of around 100 engineers who worked for more than three years to make this happen. As Google wanted the millions of Java programmers to work with Android seamlessly, it implemented 37 Java-compatible API by roughly copying about 11,500 from the Java SE platform.

Issues and findings of the Court

Before Google bringing the case to Supreme Court, the Appellate Federal Circuit Court had passed a judgement in Oracle’s favour.  The two issues raised by the Federal Court were:

  • Whether the Java SE platform owner could copyright the copied lines used by Google from the API?
  • If so, whether Google’s copying constituted a permissible ‘fair use of the material?

Upon passing a judgement in Oracle’s favour, the Federal Circuit held that the copied lines by Google are copyrightable by the owner of the Java SE platform, concluding that Google’s copying does not constitute ‘fair-use’ as a matter of law.

The Federal Circuit Court described an API (Application Programming Interface) as a “tool that allows programmers to use … pre-written code to build certain functions into their programs, rather than write their code to perform those functions from scratch.” Thus, a programmer can draw upon a vast library of pre-written code through an API to carry out complex tasks.

After that, the U.S Supreme Court handed Google a massive victory by declaring that their copying the Java code, which included only those lines of code needed to allow programmers to put their acquired talents to work in a new and constructive form, constitutes ‘fair-use’. Therefore, this act does not constitute a copyright violation in any form.

The concept of ‘Fair-use’ as explained by the U.S Copyright Office states that “it is a legal doctrine that promotes freedom of expression by permitting the unlicensed use of copyright-protected work in certain circumstances.”

Section 107 of the U.S.A Copyright Act provides the statutory framework for determining whether something constitutes fair use. It identifies certain types of usages such as criticism, parody, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, research etc.

This section calls for consideration of four factors:

  • The Purpose and Character of the use.
  • The nature of Copyrighted work.
  • The sustainability of the portion used in relation to the whole work.
  • The effect of the usage of the work on the potential market.

The Purpose and Character of the use:

To determine the purpose and character of the use of the copyrighted work, the ‘transformative use’ of the work needs to be considered.

In the present case, Google’s limited copying of the API falls under the ambit of ‘transformative use’ as it copied only a limited portion that required programmers to work in a different computing environment without repudiating any part of the familiar programming language.

The Nature of the Copyrighted work:

Upon looking at the facts of the case and the nature of the copyrighted work by Google, the Court decided to make a clear distinction between a code ‘that instructs a computer to execute a task’ and the code which ‘allows programmers to call upon pre-written computing tasks for use in their programs’.

In the present case, the code copied by Google falls within the ambit of the second definition of ‘code’ drawn upon by the U.S Supreme Court because the copied lines of the code used by Google are a part of the ‘user interface’ that gives a path to programmers to access pre-written computer code through simple commands.

The District Court’s explanation of API’s concept was reviewed, stating, “An API is like a library, and each package is like a bookshelf in the library. Each class is like a book on the bookshelf of the library. Each method is like a how-to-do-it chapter in a book.” To find the proper work you need, one needs to go to the right shelf in the library and choose the right book for the correct explanation of the work required.

The sustainability of the portion used in relation of the whole work:

The 11,500 lines of code that Google copied to create a new platform should be reviewed to determine the sustainability of the portion used concerning the whole work. Those 11,500 lines, however, constitute only 4% of the entire API in issue, which consists of approximately 2.86 million lines. This concludes that Google copied only a minimal portion of the API in question to allow programmers to bring their skills and build a new software platform.

The effect of usage of the work on potential market:

The present case records clearly state that Google’s new software platform is not a market substitute for Java SE. The effect on the potential market stands in favour of Google as Java SE’s copyright holder would also get a fair benefit from the re-implementation of its interface into a different market.

Indian Perspective of this decision

Section 52(1)(a) of the Indian Copyright Act, 1957 refers to the fair dealing of work. It has been inserted through an amendment in 1994 and is considered an exception to copyright infringement. However, this doctrine excludes computer programmes and the exception to this doctrine is mentioned under Section 52(1) (ab) of the Act, which provides for ‘doing of any act necessary to obtain information essential for interoperability of an independently created computer programme with other programmes by a lawful possessor of a computer programme provided that such information is not readily otherwise available.’

In general terms, interoperability means computer systems or software to make use/exchange of information. If looked at from an Indian viewpoint, Google would have to prove the claim of inter-operability under the provisions of the Indian Copyright Act. However, the stand of Indian Courts could have been different, keeping in mind the factual circumstances of the case.

Implication of this decision

In this decision, the Supreme Court gave a clear distinction between the type of code Google copied i.e., between the software interface and other creative codes. The ruling does not really rule out whether API’s can be copyrightable or not, but gives an upper hand to software developers to take help of the ‘fair-use’ doctrine and use APIs to create new programmes. This decision gives more legal certainty to the practices of software developers for using, re-using, and re-implementing software interfaces written by others.

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