A big win for Google, the hon’ble United States Supreme Court (hereinafter referred to as “USSC”) on 5th April 2021 finally pronounced its decision on the most keenly watched copyright dispute of this century. The judgment so delivered by the Hon’ble USSC overturned the 2018 decision of the Hon’ble Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit which decided the matter in favor of Oracle.
The Hon’ble USSC while pronouncing the judgment stated that Google’s use of the Java Application Program Interface was fair use as a matter of law.
At the outset, the instant case came into light in the year 2010 when Oracle filed a lawsuit against Google in the Hon’ble United States District Court for the Northern District of California (District Court) for both patent and copyright infringement.
Necessary to mention that the main allegation put forward by Oracle was that Google’s unauthorised use of 37 packages of Oracle’s Java Application Programming Interface (hereinafter referred to as “API”) in its Android operating system infringed the patents and copyright of Oracle.
In the last ten years, it is claimed by the Hon’ble District Court and the Hon’ble Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (hereinafter referred to as “CAFC”) that the instant case had lots of twists and turns.
Besides this, in the year 2018 CAFC apprehended that the API packages are copyrightable and Google’s copying of the API packages will not fall under the “doctrine of fair use”.
Subsequently, the instant case reached Hon’ble USSC which heard the appeal filed by Google against the verdict of CAFC. It is pertinent to mention that the present dispute holds very high stakes and in a way, it can be viewed upon as a challenge posed by Oracle (who owns the copyright in Java) against the Android operating system which had been conceived and implemented by Google as part of its entry into the smart mobility segment.
In the background, Java is a language developed by Sun and has been one of the world’s most popular programming languages and platforms. In the year 2007, Google happened to roll out its Android software platform for mobile devices based on the popular programming language Java. Thereafter in the year 2010, Oracle acquired Sun Microsystems that owned Java, and thereafter Oracle took legal action against Google and accused its Android platform of infringing Oracle’s Java-related copyrights and patents.
It is also claimed by Oracle that Java and Android are multifaceted platforms that include virtual machines, development and testing kits, and APIs and Oracle’s copyright claim involves 37 packages in the Java API. Needful to note that the Java API had 166 packages in total which are further bifurcated into more than six hundred classes which are segmented into more than six thousand methods. It is thereof claimed by Oracle that Google replicated the exact names and exact functions of virtually all of these 37 packages but used a different code to device them.
Moreover, it is alleged by Google that they wrote their source code to implement virtually all the functions of the 37 API packages in question.
Consequently, the issues raised before the Hon’ble USSC by Google dealt with the copyrightability of Java’s API wherein Google stated that the API’s declaring code and organization could be classified as processes/systems/methods of operation that were expressly excluded from copyright protection. Furthermore, Google also raised the contention before the Hon’ble USSC that the use of Java’s API was a “fair use”.
In the due course, it has been observed that the Hon’ble USSC did not respond to the first contention raised by Google. Besides this the Hon’ble USSC while pointing out the purpose of the second question on fair use stated that the “hon’ble court shall accept, but purely for the sake of argument’s, that the entire Sun Java API falls within the definition of that which can be copyrighted”. Moreover, it is also observed by the Hon’ble USSC that US Congress, along with the courts, had limited the scope of copyright protection regarding works that we’re entitled to copyright and a copyright holder cannot prevent another person from making fair use of copyrighted material under section. 107 of US Copyright Act.
Now for determining whether the use made of work can be classified as fair use, the Hon’ble USSC noted the following four factors which are relevant under the US Copyright law:
- the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is commercial or is for non-profit educational purposes
- the nature of the copyrighted work
- the amount and substantiality of the portion used concerning the copyrighted work as a whole; and
- the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.
Based on the above-mentioned four factors the Hon’ble USSC held that even though Google’s use was a commercial activity it would still fall under fair use because of the characteristically transformative role that the re-implementation played in the new Android system. Further, the Hon’ble USSC while referring to the second factor on the nature of copyrighted work, stated that it should be noted that the API consisted of three main portions, the first portion consists of an “implementing code” which instructs the computer on the steps to follow to carry out each task. The second portion consists of a particular command, called a “method call” with the calling up of each task. The third portion called the “declaring code” consists of a computer code that will associate the writing of a ‘method call’ with particular places in the computer that contains the needed implementing code.
Pertinent to note that in the instant case the main dispute between the parties is over the declaring code. While dealing with the issue at hand in the instant case the Hon’ble USSC observed that the declaring code was different from many other kinds of copyrightable computer code. It was inseparably bound together with a general system, the division of computing tasks, that no one claimed was a proper subject of copyright. It was inextricably bound up with the idea of organizing tasks that were not copyrightable. Additionally, the Hon’ble USSC while Dealing with the third factor, noted that Google copied those lines, not because of their creativity or purpose. It copied them because programmers had already learned to work with the Java API’s system, and it would have been very difficult to attract programmers to build its Android smartphone system without them. Furthermore, the Hon’ble USSC also stated that Google’s basic purpose was to create a different task-related system for smartphones and to create a platform called the Android platform which would help achieve and popularize that objective. Regarding the fourth factor, Hon’ble USSC opined that given the costs and difficulties of producing alternative APIs with similar appeal to programmers, allowing enforcement of Java API was not feasible.
Lastly, it was observed that the Hon’ble USSC was convinced by the arguments and contentions presented before the Hon’ble court that the uncertain nature of Java’s ability to compete in Android’s market place, the sources of its lost revenue, and the risk of creativity-related harms to the public, when taken together, effects market, also weighed in favour of fair use.
Likewise, the verdict so passed by the Hon’ble USSC in the instant case is of much significance as the software industry was waiting eagerly for the directions to use java.
It was also noted by the Hon’ble USSC in its verdict that there was a fear that a win for Oracle/Sun would have created multiple problems for the software industry by forcing them either to reinvent the wheel on every occasion they wanted to instruct a computer to do something, or to pay high licensing fees to the leading software companies for the right to carry out trivial routine tasks.
To finish, the verdict gives legal approval to the common practice adopted by software developers which involves using, re-using and re-implementing software interfaces written by others. In a nutshell, this verdict is a victory for innovation, interoperability, and computer programming.