Press Release Copyright Reform

Supreme Court Google v Oracle Decision a Fair Use Win for Consumers and Competition

April 5, 2021 , , , ,
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Today, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision 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 2019 brief, Public Knowledge urged the Supreme Court to hold that the Java API is uncopyrightable, in accordance with longstanding tradition, industry practice, and common sense. The decision follows years of advocacy by Public Knowledge.

The case attracted widespread attention when the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled that Oracle could assert a copyright over the Java API, which was developed by Sun Microsystems, a company that Oracle acquired. 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 on both the fair use and copyrightability questions. The Court ruled in favor of Google on fair use grounds, but declined to consider the question of copyrightability.

The following can be attributed to John Bergmayer, Legal Director at Public Knowledge:

“The Supreme Court came to the right decision here. The jury at the trial court concluded that Google’s use of the Java API was a fair use, and the Court’s own fair use analysis came to the same conclusion. 

“The Court’s thoughtful opinion grapples with many of the complex issues surrounding software copyright, noting that an overly expansive view of the scope of software copyright would limit competition, and finding that copying elements of an API to allow developers familiar with existing systems to ‘put their accrued talents to work’ on new ones is a fair use as a matter of law. This ruling may be helpful for software compatibility and interoperability in contexts that go beyond just reimplementing APIs.

“The Court expressly declined, however, to consider whether software APIs even should be covered by copyright to begin with. Some day the court or Congress should answer this question, since a decision that APIs should not be subject to copyright at all would benefit competition and interoperability in many ways.

“That said, this opinion bolstering and supporting fair use is great news for consumers and advocates who believe that the technology sector needs more competition — not more legal doctrines expressly designed to limit it.”