Google Prevails Over Oracle in API Copyright Case

April 6, 2021

The Google v. Oracle America legal case was related to the nature of computer code and copyright law. The dispute centered on the use of parts of the Java programming language's application programming interfaces (APIs), which are owned by Oracle (through subsidiary, Oracle America, Inc., originating from Sun Microsystems), within early versions of the Android operating system by Google. Google has admitted to using the APIs, and has since transitioned Android to a copyright-unburdened engine, but argues their original use of the APIs was within fair use.

Oracle initiated the suit arguing that the APIs were copyrightable, seeking US$8.8 billion in damages from Google's sales and licensing of the earlier infringing versions of Android. While two District Court-level jury trials found in favor of Google, the Federal Circuit court reversed both decisions, asserting APIs are copyrightable and Google's use does not fall under fair use. Google successfully petitioned to the Supreme Court to hear the case in the 2019 term, focusing on the copyrightability of APIs and subsequent fair use; the case was delayed to the 2020 term due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Supreme Court ruled in a 6–2 decision that in bypassing the question of the copyrightability of APIs, found that Google's use of the Java APIs fell within the four factors of fair use, reversing the Federal Circuit ruling and remanding the case for further review.

The case has been of significant interest within the tech and software industries, as numerous computer programs and software libraries, particularly in open source, are developed by recreating the functionality of APIs from commercial or competing products to aid developers in interoperability between different systems or platforms.

Dorian Daley, Executive Vice President and General Counsel said, “The Google platform just got bigger and market power greater—the barriers to entry higher and the ability to compete lower. They stole Java and spent a decade litigating as only a monopolist can. This behavior is exactly why regulatory authorities around the world and in the United States are examining Google’s business practices."

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