In a win for innovation, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that Google’s use of certain Java Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) is a lawful fair use. In doing so, the Court reversed the previous rulings by the Federal Circuit and recognized that copyright only promotes innovation and creativity when it provides breathing room for those who are building on what has come before.
This decision gives more legal certainty to software developers’ common practice of using, re-using, and re-implementing software interfaces written by others, a custom that underlies most of the internet and personal computing technologies we use every day.
To briefly summarize over ten years of litigation: Oracle claims a copyright on the Java APIs—essentially names and formats for calling computer functions—and claims that Google infringed that copyright by using (reimplementing) certain Java APIs in the Android OS. When it created Android, Google wrote its own set of basic functions similar to Java (its own implementing code). But in order to allow developers to write their own programs for Android, Google used certain specifications of the Java APIs (sometimes called the “declaring code”).
APIs provide a common language that lets programs talk to each other. They also let programmers operate with a familiar interface, even on a competitive platform. It would strike at the heart of innovation and collaboration to declare them copyrightable.
EFF filed numerous amicus briefs in this case explaining why the APIs should not be copyrightable and why, in any event, it is not infringement to use them in the way Google did. As we’ve explained before, the two Federal Circuit opinions are a disaster for innovation in computer software. Its first decision—that APIs are entitled to copyright protection—ran contrary to the views of most other courts and the long-held expectations of computer scientists. Indeed, excluding APIs from copyright protection was essential to the development of modern computers and the internet.
Then the second decision made things worse. The Federal Circuit's first opinion had at least held that a jury should decide whether Google’s use of the Java APIs was fair, and in fact a jury did just that. But Oracle appealed again, and in 2018 the same three Federal Circuit judges reversed the jury's verdict and held that Google had not engaged in fair use as a matter of law.
Fortunately, the Supreme Court agreed to review the case. In a 6-2 decision, Justice Breyer explained why Google’s use of the Java APIs was a fair use as a matter of law. First, the Court discussed some basic principles of the fair use doctrine, writing that fair use “permits courts to avoid rigid application of the copyright statute when, on occasion, it would stifle the very creativity which that law is designed to foster.”
Furthermore, the court stated:
Fair use “can play an important role in determining the lawful scope of a computer program copyright . . . It can help to distinguish among technologies. It can distinguish between expressive and functional features of computer code where those features are mixed. It can focus on the legitimate need to provide incentives to produce copyrighted material while examining the extent to which yet further protection creates unrelated or illegitimate harms in other markets or to the development of other products.”
In doing so, the decision underlined the real purpose of copyright: to incentivize innovation and creativity. When copyright does the opposite, fair use provides an important safety valve.
Justice Breyer then turned to the specific fair use statutory factors. Appropriately for a functional software copyright case, he first discussed the nature of the copyrighted work. The Java APIs are a “user interface” that allow users (here the developers of Android applications) to “manipulate and control” task-performing computer programs. The Court observed that the declaring code of the Java APIs differs from other kinds of copyrightable computer code—it’s “inextricably bound together” with uncopyrightable features, such as a system of computer tasks and their organization and the use of specific programming commands (the Java “method calls”). As the Court noted:
Unlike many other programs, its value in significant part derives from the value that those who do not hold copyrights, namely, computer programmers, invest of their own time and effort to learn the API’s system. And unlike many other programs, its value lies in its efforts to encourage programmers to learn and to use that system so that they will use (and continue to use) Sun-related implementing programs that Google did not copy.
Thus, since the declaring code is “further than are most computer programs (such as the implementing code) from the core of copyright,” this factor favored fair use.
Justice Breyer then discussed the purpose and character of the use. Here, the opinion shed some important light on when a use is “transformative” in the context of functional aspects of computer software, creating something new rather than simply taking the place of the original. Although Google copied parts of the Java API “precisely,” Google did so to create products fulfilling new purposes and to offer programmers “a highly creative and innovative tool” for smartphone development. Such use “was consistent with that creative ‘progress’ that is the basic constitutional objective of copyright itself.”
The Court discussed “the numerous ways in which reimplementing an interface can further the development of computer programs,” such as allowing different programs to speak to each other and letting programmers continue to use their acquired skills. The jury also heard that reuse of APIs is common industry practice. Thus, the opinion concluded that the “purpose and character” of Google’s copying was transformative, so the first factor favored fair use.
Next, the Court considered the third fair use factor, the amount and substantiality of the portion used. As a factual matter in this case, the 11,500 lines of declaring code that Google used were less than one percent of the total Java SE program. And even the declaring code that Google used was to permit programmers to utilize their knowledge and experience working with the Java APIs to write new programs for Android smartphones. Since the amount of copying was “tethered” to a valid and transformative purpose, the “substantiality” factor favored fair use.
Finally, several reasons led Justice Breyer to conclude that the fourth factor, market effects, favored Google. Independent of Android’s introduction in the marketplace, Sun didn’t have the ability to build a viable smartphone. And any sources of Sun’s lost revenue were a result of the investment by third parties (programmers) in learning and using Java. Thus, “given programmers’ investment in learning the Sun Java API, to allow enforcement of Oracle’s copyright here would risk harm to the public. Given the costs and difficulties of producing alternative APIs with similar appeal to programmers, allowing enforcement here would make of the Sun Java API’s declaring code a lock limiting the future creativity of new programs.” This “lock” would interfere with copyright’s basic objectives.
The Court concluded that “where Google reimplemented a user interface, taking only what was needed to allow users to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program, Google’s copying of the Sun Java API was a fair use of that material as a matter of law.”
The Supreme Court left for another day the issue of whether functional aspects of computer software are copyrightable in the first place. Nevertheless, we are pleased that the Court recognized the overall importance of fair use in software cases, and the public interest in allowing programmers, developers, and other users to continue to use their acquired knowledge and experience with software interfaces in subsequent platforms.