Sadly, today the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the Federal Circuit’s dangerous decision in Oracle v. Google. Oracle claims a copyright on the Java Application Programming Interface (API), and that Google infringed that copyright by using certain Java APIs in the Android OS. The Federal Circuit had ruled in Oracle’s favor, reversing a well-reasoned district court opinion holding that the APIs in question were not subject to copyright. Google had asked the Supreme Court to review the Federal Circuit decision. On behalf of 77 computer scientists, EFF had filed an amicus brief supporting Google’s petition.
The Federal Circuit’s decision has been harshly criticized for its misunderstanding of both computer science and copyright law. APIs are, generally speaking, specifications that allow programs to communicate with each other, and are different than the code that implements a program. Treating APIs as copyrightable would have a profound negative impact on interoperability, and, therefore, innovation.
Today’s decision doesn’t mean that Oracle has won the lawsuit. The case will now return to the district court for a trial on Google’s fair use defense. Both the Federal Circuit opinion and a brief by the U.S. Solicitor General recognized that Google was entitled to a trial on that defense. However, fair use shouldn’t be the only defense to API copyrightability. Fair use is a complex and potentially expensive defense to develop and litigate. While Google has the financial resources to take that defense to trial, few start-ups have the ability to do so. The Federal Circuit’s decision thus could deter new companies from competing with a large, litigious competitor by using the latter’s APIs. Hopefully other courts will decline to follow the Federal Circuit’s unwise opinion, which fortunately isn’t binding on the other appeals courts.