In 2010, Oracle filed the copyright infringement suit against Google in San Francisco federal court. In 2012, the court ruled in Google’s favor, however, Oracle appealed the decision. In 2014, the appeals court reversed a judge’s ruling that “Oracle interfaces could not be copyrighted”; Google appealed the finding to the Supreme Court. In 2015, the Supreme Court rejected Google’s appeal. In 2016, Google was cleared by a jury. However, in 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington overturned the decision; the court found that Google breached fair use copyright law when it included Oracle’s software code in Android. The court rejected Google’s claim that by including the code as part of something it made it something new. Further, Google has lost twice at the Federal Circuit level.
In the suit, Oracle alleged that Google copied thousands of lines of Java API code without a license to make Android’s operating system. Google acknowledge the use of 11,000 lines out of 15 million lines, the equivalent of 0.1 percent. However, Google later argued it developed an alternative to the Java code. Lower courts have agreed with Google, however, the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals has overturned the lower courts’ decisions multiple times. The Verge reported, “[i]t’s concluded that companies can copyright application programming interface (API) packages, which are vital to making different software programs work together, and prevent other companies from using them commercially without a license.”
“Developers should be able to create applications across platforms and not be locked into one company’s software,” Kent Walker, Google Senior Vice President said in a statement.
Oracle stated that Apple and Microsoft both licensed Java, so Google could have done the same. Microsoft, Mozilla, and other companies, as well as internet advocacy groups Public Knowledge and Electronic Frontier Foundation, have supported Google’s petition.
Google’s petition to the Supreme Court stated, “[t]he Federal Circuit’s approach will upend the longstanding expectation of software developers that they are free to use existing software interfaces to build new computer programs.” Google has argued that copyrighting an API would be unfair and change the way software is developed.
“The Federal Circuit’s decision threatens the continued vitality of software innovation,” James Grimmelmann, a copyright scholar at Cornell University stated.
Ars Technica reported, “If APIs can be restricted by copyright, then every significant computer program could have legal landmines lurking inside of it. Grimmelmann warns that API copyrights could easily give rise to API trolls: companies that acquire the copyright to old software, then sue companies that built their software using what they assumed were open standards. API copyrights could also hamper interoperability between software platforms, as companies are forced to build their software using deliberately incompatible standards to avoid legal headaches.”
If the Federal Circuit’s decision is upheld by the Supreme Court, the way software development currently works could see a dramatic shift. “It’s quite common for software developers to clone the functionality of established software platforms and standards in order to make sure their new products are compatible with what’s already out there. Sometimes this compatible software is then packaged into open source libraries that become free for others to use, and it can be bundled together with other programs to produce larger software packages. Because it has been widely assumed that APIs can’t be copyrighted—or at least that the copyrights aren’t likely to be enforced—companies haven’t worried about using libraries that take advantage of third-party APIs that might belong to someone else.” As a result, if the Federal Circuit’s ruling is upheld there could be a lot of software companies that could now be sued for copyright infringement because they used APIs created by another company, though it was fairly standard industry practice.
Oracle has sought over $8 billion in damages. The suit will be informative for copyright law as it relates to software. The questions at hand are: “whether copyright protection extends to a software interface” and “whether a petitioner’s use of a software interface in the context of creating a new computer program constitutes fair use.”