Press Release

Public Knowledge Joins Amicus Brief Urging Supreme Court to Overturn Federal Circuit in Google v Oracle

January 13, 2020 , , , ,

Today, Public Knowledge joined the R Street Institute and the Niskanen Center in filing an amicus brief at the Supreme Court in the case of Google v Oracle. The case asks whether the application programming interface, or API, of a programming language such as Java is subject to copyright protection — and, if it is, whether reimplementing that API can be a fair use. In its brief, Public Knowledge urges the Supreme Court to hold that the Java API is uncopyrightable, in accordance with longstanding tradition, industry practice, and common sense.

The case attracted widespread attention when the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled that Oracle could assert a copyright over its API, which consists of a specification of parts of the Java system. Following that ruling, the case was sent back to trial, and at that trial, a jury determined that Google’s use of the Java APIs was fair use. Oracle appealed to the Federal Circuit, which threw out the jury verdict and substituted its own analysis. The Supreme Court agreed to hear Google’s appeal. Oral argument is scheduled for later this spring.

The following can be attributed to Meredith Rose, Policy Counsel at Public Knowledge:

“The Federal Circuit’s ruling that APIs are protected by copyright must be overturned. The ability to re-implement and interoperate with APIs is vital for competition, for compatibility, and for interoperability. If its decision is upheld, dominant platforms will have yet another tool to lock in users and lock out competition, putting new entrants and smaller developers at a particular disadvantage.

“A standard set of APIs is a central part of programming languages, such as the Java language at issue in this dispute. As our brief argues, the point of systematized language is to communicate. To that end, humans have been creating, adapting, and reimplementing artificial languages for much of history. From flag signaling to telegraph codes to Victorian floriography, humans have created, spread, and formalized methods of communication to serve their particular needs. The idea that these languages, designed specifically to enable communication between parties, should be subject to copyright is novel and dangerous — and contrary to decades of software engineering practices. 

“The Supreme Court should overturn the Federal Circuit’s unprecedented view and affirm what common sense tells us is true: that developers cannot use copyright to lock down languages that are specifically designed to promote interoperability.”

You may view the amicus brief here.