The Landmark Decision: Google v. Oracle - A Battle of Code and Copyright


The supreme court of United States on April 5, 2021 issued its judgement in the case of Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc.1The usage of application programming interfaces (APIs) and around 11,500 lines of Java code held by Oracle for building Google's early versions of the android operating system was the focal point of the current dispute between the tech titans Google and Oracle. By the time Google switched the Android to a copyright-free engine without the Java source code, it was asserting that the usage was legal and that it fell under the category of fair use. Oracle initially brought the complaint in 2011, alleging that the Java API code violated their patents and copyright. Even while the patent claim was quickly rejected, the copyright claim was not, and the lower court rejected Google's claim of fair use.In response to the federal circuit court's decision, Google petitioned the Supreme Court for certiorari.

The arguments were condensed by the Supreme Court into two major issues: "First, it must be determined whether software interfaces like Java API sources are covered by the copyright; then, it must be determined whether using an API copy to recreate a user interface for a new computer programme qualifies as fair use."


Before discussing whether using an API constitutes transformative expression, it is important to grasp what transformative expression is. In plain English, the term "transformative use" refers to the use of an already existing work that has been modified, adapted, or transformed in such a manner as to completely convey a new meaning while remaining distinct from the original work. The concept of transformative expression was first introduced in the case of Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music.2The court in the case focused on "the transformative nature of the defendant's use and determined that there was no infringement because the defendant added a new meaning rather than overtly copying the original work, and that the work's devolution would probably not have an impact on the original work's market reach. The criteria for determining whether a sort of usage is transformational or not are still hazy." The court has supplied examples of work that passes and fails to pass this standard through a variety of decisions, but the courts should take the circumstances into account on a case-by-case basis.


Due to Supreme Court rulings that left it unclear whether software was an idea, a formula, or an algorithm, this topic of copyright protection to software interface was previously thought to be unpatentable. In this instance, the Supreme Court has prioritised the copyright claim over the patent claim. The court's decision to separate software from other copyrightable material was an intriguing aspect of the ruling. It was determined that "unlike books and movies, computer code has a practical purpose that generates a distinct public interest from all other copyrightable material." The court's definition of a fair use precedent for computer code, which appears to be more forgiving than other media, was informed by this similarity.

The decision further clarifies that patents protect ideas whereas copyright only protects ideas' manifestations, and that Oracle's patent claim was denied after a thorough review of the case's facts long before it reached the Supreme decision. The court effectively made a distinction between interfaces and the method and code used to implement them. The specification of an interface might be seen as only a potential use for a computer, but the implementation code is how that use is really put into practise. The comparison for the idea is that you would want walls, a closet, a dressing area, a window, etc. if you were designing a room.That falls under the category of non-copyrightable ideas because while the architects may have designed it differently, the fundamental component cannot be changed. Similar to this, the court is still unsure about whether software code that declares an interface idea is copyrightable; the fact that it straddles the worlds of noncopyrightable ideas and their copyrightable expressions gave them enough leeway to claim that it is a grey area and needs more clarification. That ambiguity provides sufficient justification for using fair use guidelines and ensuring that innovation is not stifled.The notion that there are only so many ways you can write code to declare an interface since it is open to new form and expressions is one of the points that seemed to sway in Google's favour. As a result, the majority did not make a decision regarding the Java API's copyrightability.


The Supreme Court decided that Google's use of Sun's source code for its own Android Platform qualified as a "fair use" under copyright law in answer to the second concern. The Supreme Court used the four criteria listed in Section 107 of the Copyright Act as its benchmark for analysing the aspect of fair use when using an API to recreate a user interface. The first component looks at where the work originated, and in this instance, Java API is a menu-driven manual that enables programmers to keep an eye on computer programmes that carry out certain tasks. By its very nature, the code combines copyright-eligible and functional elements with aspects that are not copyright-eligible and functional.In light of these factors together, the Court determined that copyright did not represent the core of the code and that fair usage had the upper hand. As was already said, the copying of Java code falls within the category of transformative expression since it entirely altered the original work by adding new context and parts. Next, the court determines the intention and type of infringing usage. The Court ruled that commercial use did not necessarily indicate fair use, holding that the commercial nature of the use had little bearing on the copyrightability as a whole when compared to Google's assertion of potentially transformative use. The amount and nature of work used were also examined in court.The Court ruled that Google simply copied what was necessary for their programmers to keep expanding upon the coding language they had previously mastered. Furthermore, the third criteria often favours fair use where the volume of copying is connected to a legal and transformative goal. Finally, the court looks at the effects of the copying on the industry to decide whether or not Google's use of Java software coding was fair or not. The Court further determined that the programmers' effort in mastering the Java API language had a bigger influence on Android's performance than Oracle's initial expenditure in creating the Java API.The Court concentrated on the cost of creating a new code language rather than building off the Java API, which would obstruct copyright's fundamental innovation objectives, because doing so makes it easier for inventive new programming code to reach the market and can be used by many by making minor adjustments. The Court believes that this aspect is in favour of fair usage.


This choice may be viewed as a development in the software program's copyrightability and for the software developers as the tech sector has been keenly following the Google v. Oracle case because of how frequently APIs are used. This choice might have a significant impact on the present and future development of software. Following the judgement, the minority opinion expressed worries about the weakening copyright protection for software developers, allowing competitors with more financial resources to outperform smaller businesses, and decreasing the industry's motivation for innovation. Considering every element, I do so.According to the court's interpretation of the fair use concept, Google was permitted to utilise 11,500 lines of code from 37 Oracle-owned Java API libraries when developing its Android platform. This implies that Google won't be held responsible for potentially enormous financial losses. What that means for everyone else is still up in the air, and given the fact-heavy and context-specific tenets of the Court's decision, Google v. Oracle may turn out to be more limited than it initially looks.


1. 593 U.S. ___ (more)141 S. Ct. 1183; 209 L. Ed. 2d 311

2. 510 U.S. 569 (1994)

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