The Supreme Court ruling was a mixed bag that many observers are still parsing. In a 6-2 decision, justices sided with Google and its argument that copying 11,500 lines of code from Oracle’s Java in the Android operating system was fair use. Great! At the same time, though, the court appeared to be operating under the assumption that APIs are copyrightable.
“Given the rapidly changing technological, economic, and business-related circumstances, we believe we should not answer more than is necessary to resolve the parties’ dispute,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the majority. “We shall assume, but purely for argument’s sake, that [the code] “falls within the definition of that which can be copyrighted.”
While it may take years to fully understand the ruling’s impact, it’s essential to keep dissecting the issue now, as APIs only continue to become more necessary as the pipes behind every internet-connected device and application.
The legal saga began when Google used Java APIs in developing Android. Google wrote its own implementation of the Java APIs. Still, to allow developers to write their own programs for Android, Google’s implementation used the same names, organization, and functionality as the Java APIs.
Oracle sued Google in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in August 2010, seven months after it closed its Java creator Sun Microsystems acquisition, contending that Google had infringed Oracle’s copyright.
In May 2012, Judge William Alsup ruled that APIs are not subject to copyright because that would hamper innovation. Oracle appealed the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals, which reversed Judge Alsup in May 2014, finding that the Java APIs are copyrightable. However, he also sent the case back to the trial court to determine whether Google has a fair use defense.
A new District Court trial began in May 2016 on the fair use question. A jury found that Google’s implementation of the Java API was fair use. Oracle appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals in March 2018 again reversed the lower court. Google filed a petition with the Supreme Court in January 2019, receiving a hearing date in early 2020. However, lengthening the case’s tortuous path through the courts further, COVID-19 forced oral arguments to be postponed to last October. Finally, on April 5, the Supreme Court settled the matter.