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By: Kirsten Patzer
In a 6-2 decision, the Supreme Court of the United States(the “Court”) reversed the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc., holding Google’s use of Oracle’s Java Application Programming Interfaces (API) in its Android operating system was “fair use.”
The Court granted Google’s certiorari petition on two issues: 1) whether Oracle’s Java API is copyrightable; and 2) was Google’s use of the Java API “fair use.” The Court declined to undertake any analysis of the first question, rendering their opinion on the assumption that the Java API is copyrightable, and examined only whether Google’s use of 11,500 lines of programming code infringed on Oracle’s copyright or if Google’s use of the code was “fair use” under US copyright law.
To establish whether Google’s employment of the Java API did, in fact, constitute “fair use” the Court examined the four factors set forth in the Copyright Act’s fair use provision: 1) the purpose and character of the use; 2) the nature of the copyrighted work; 3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and 4) the effect of the potential market value of the copyrighted work.
Justice Breyer, writing for the majority, began his assessment with the second factor, holding the nature of the copyrighted work favored a finding of fair use. The Court differentiated between the copied Java API “declaring code” and Google’s “implementing code” explaining the former is more “utilitarian” in nature, and is inherently bound together with the latter’s more “creative” counterpart, suggesting that the Java API code, standing alone, was not at the “core” of copyright protection.
The Court then determined Google’s “purpose and character” of the use was “transformative”, noting Google used the code to create an operating system for a different platform and computing environment. Thus, Google’s use of the code was “consistent with the creative process.” The Court also found the third prong, the amount and substantiality of the use, weighed in Google’s favor, noting the 11,500 lines Google copied were less than one percent of the code in the entire API.
Turning to the fourth factor, the Court determined Google’s Android smartphone platform did not replace Java and did not usurp its place in the market. Furthermore, Oracle would benefit from the reimplementation of their code into the market. The Court noted Oracle “was poorly positioned to succeed in the mobile phone market” and Google’s Android platform differed from Oracle’s: “Google’s Android platform was part of a distinct (and more advanced) market than Java software.”
In sum, the Court concluded that Google took “only what was needed” to allow their programmers to “put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program” thus, Google’s copying of Java API code was fair use of that material as a matter of law.
For more information on this topic, please contact Kirsten Patzer at [email protected].