Good news! The U.S. Supreme Court has finally agreed to review the Federal Circuit’s dangerous decisions in the long-running case of Oracle v. Google. The Supreme Court now has an opportunity to reverse the damage done by the Federal Circuit. The Court can explain why copyrighting Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) is a bad idea and why—even if there is copyright protection—fair use applies.
To summarize the last nine years: Oracle claims a copyright on the Java APIs, and that Google infringed that copyright by using certain Java APIs in the Android OS. When it created the Android OS, Google wrote its own version of Java. But in order to allow developers to write their own programs for Android, Google used certain specifications of the Java APIs. Since APIs are, generally speaking, specifications that let programs talk to each other, it would strike at the heart of innovation and collaboration in technology to declare them copyrightable.
The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals had twice ruled in Oracle’s favor. First, in a terrible 2014 decision, the court reversed a well-reasoned district court opinion holding that APIs are not subject to copyright. After that Federal Circuit decision, the Supreme Court rejected Google’s first request to review the case.
The Federal Circuit sent the case back to the district court for a trial on Google’s fair use defense. In 2016, a jury agreed that Google’s use of the Java APIs was a fair use, and Oracle again appealed to the Federal Circuit. In an even worse 2018 decision, the appeals court rejected the jury verdict, ignored established fair use law, and held that Google’s use was not a fair use.
EFF had previously filed amicus briefs supporting Google and filed another amicus brief supporting Google’s second attempt to have the Supreme Court review the case. This time, after nearly a decade of litigation, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. (One procedural note: because of the Supreme Court’s rules on citing cases, the lawsuit will now be known as Google v. Oracle, since Google asked the Supreme Court to hear the case. After nine years, we’ll have to get used to calling the case by this new name.)
Winning the case might not be easy. The U.S. Solicitor General filed two briefs opposing Supreme Court review that misunderstood the operation of both APIs and copyright law. The Solicitor General and companies that supported Oracle before the Federal Circuit can be expected to continue to support Oracle. Hopefully, Google and its amici—including EFF—will be able to convince the Court that allowing copyright on APIs is a terrible idea for computer science, and why the fair use defense applies in any event.
We’ll find out relatively quickly, given how long it’s taken to get here. Oral argument in the now-named Google v. Oracle is expected in March 2020 and a decision by June.