GOOGLE v. ORACLE [CASE ANALYSIS]
Author: Kohina Jain
Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc is an American case. Oracle sued Google in 2010 for the infringement of patent and copyright. This case centered on whether the search engine Google hadstolen the Java software code for operating its popular Android mobile phone. After adecade of skirmishes in the trials and appeal courts, finally on 5 April 2021, the long battle ended when the Supreme Court of the United States of America in a ratio of 6:2 ruled in favour of Google that copying of the JAVA API naming convention by Google was fair use. This case is a landmark decision for the greater software industry.
1. The dispute started in 2010 when Oracle acquired Sun Microsystems, the previous owner of Java, and subsequently filed a copyright infringement case against Google for using Java APIs (Application programming interfaces) in its Android operating system.
2. APIs are lines of code in a software program used for interaction and communication among different programmers.
3. Oracle claimed that Google had copied the structure, sequence, and organization of the overall original code for 37 packages in its Java API, into Android which performs various fundamental computing operations.
4. Oracle soughtdamages of US $8.8 billion from Google and also licensing of earlier infringing versions of Android.
5. Two District Court-level jury trials were in the favor of Google. After this Federal Court reversed both decisions and, held it in favor of Oracle.
6. Writ petition of certiorari was filed by Google in January 2019 to challenge the decision of the appeal court in Oracle’s favor, focusing on the copyrightability of APIs and later fair use.
1. Whether protection of copyright can be extended to a software interface like an API
2. Whether Google’s actions fell within fair use.
Arguments advanced by the Petitioner
1. Google claimed that the APIs’ declaring code of JAVA was so “functional” that it was not copyrightable; Copyright protects only the “expression” of the author and not “the ideas of the author”.
2. Google accepted that Copyright Act protected the implementing code, but it argued that the “method of operation” of declaring code is outside the scope of protection because it is much more functional.
3. Due to the “merger doctrine” that bars copyright protection when there is one option to express an idea, Google also contend that declaring code is not copyrightable and, should be excluded from protection.
4. Google argued that the declaring code is different from the regular program code. They perform a specific function of linking programs to pre-written subroutines only if they are written in a certain way.
5. Concerning fair use, Google contended that the four fair use factors explained in the Copyright Act inclines in Google’s favor.
Arguments advanced by the Respondent
1. Oracle argued that the legal principle of the Copyright Act does not allow themto give a pass just because it would be expensive to recreate our expression.
2. Oracle contended that declaring code should not be treated differently from regular program code and if they are treated so, they should be conferred more protection because declaring code reflects more creativity than other code.
3. Oracle argued that Google’s use of declaring code in the Android platform was not transformative because the declaration is performing the same function in the JAVA platform and Android platform.
4. Oracle argued that Google did not alter the original work’s expression, meaning, or message of API’S. Every line of code is copied.
5. Oracle claimed that Google used the Java API in the smartphone market which harms the market for Java API’s.
6. Oracle argued that Google’s use was unfair because the factor 1 and factor 4 that outlined in Copyright Act favoured Oracle and that Google’s use was superseding.
Justice Stephen Breyer authored the 6-2 majority opinion. The court held that by assuming that a software interface may be subjected to copyright protection, under Copyright law Google’s copied Java Se Application Programming Interface is limited so it constituted fair use of that material. The court considered four statutory factors mentioned in Copyright Act in evaluating whether a secondary use is fair. All four-factor support Google’s action and the record showed that Google's new smartphone platform is not a market substitute for Java SE, thus Google’s limited copying constituted fair use. Regarding market impact, the court found that Sun Microsystemswas unlikely to be able to compete in the Android marketplace and the copying of API’S by Google created a lot more market opportunity for others.
Justice Clarence Thomas authored the dissenting opinion, in which Justice Samuel Alito also joined. Justice Thomas concluded that by copying Oracle’s code, Google erased 97.5 of the value of Oracle’s partnership with Amazon, made tens of billions of dollars, and established its position as the owner of the largest mobile operating system in the world.
This case impacts the entire technology industry and skilled programmers that make innovation possible. Justice Breyer explained the decision that why they decided on fair use rather than copyright protection by stating that “ In today’s rapidly changing circumstances related to technological, economic, and business, the court believed that we should not answer more than is necessary to resolve the parties’ dispute”. Several Justices expressed serious concern about the legal monopoly over widely adopted standards in the software industry if Oracle wins. The Justices were clearly aware that this case is only concerned about the Java declarations, and for this, they demonstrated a clear understanding of declaration. With the decision of the Supreme Court, it is a victory for programmers, developers, and other users who want to use their knowledge and experience with software interfaces in subsequent platforms. This decision may weaken the protection of copyright for software code developers because it allows competitors with better resources to develop improved products from smaller firms, and reduce the motive for innovation within the industry.