Many users and companies alike breathed a long sigh of relief Monday April 5, 2021, when the Supreme Court announced their decision to side with Google in a copyright infringement case.
Google was defending their use of code that was copyrighted by Oracle. Oracle’s argument stemmed from the fact that Google copied code without permission.
When Google created Android in 2007, they relied on a portion of code from Oracle’s Java Platform. As a result, Oracle launched a lawsuit against Google. They were seeking billions of dollars in damages as remuneration for the alleged infringement.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court sided six to two in favor of Google. They explained that Google’s use of the code fell under the doctrine of “fair use.”
This case first began a decade ago, and the results have unfolded in a sort of ping-pong. The first round of the case was decided for Google. A judge rejected Oracle’s claim to the copyright. That decision was eventually overturned on an appeal. Later in another decision, a jury sided with Google, but another appeals court disagreed with that jury’s decision.
This decision has significant legal implications for many digital companies who rely on fair use of code to create content, services, or other digital products.
The Significance of the Supreme Court’s Decision
According to the lawsuit, Google was using “a portion [of code] that enables a programmer to call up prewritten software that, together with the computer’s hardware, will carry out a large number of specific tasks.”
Essentially, Google was using an API. API stands for “Application Programming Interface”. These interfaces are what gives two different programs the ability to interact with one another.
The API interaction allows for software applications to be combined, and for data to be pulled from one software to another,allowing for easier interpretation and display of that data.
Basically, Google was being sued for using an API to pull pre-written code.
Justice Breyer’s full statement on the decision is:
“Oracle America, Inc., is the current owner of a copyright in Java SE, a computer program that uses the popular Java computer programming language. Google, without permission, has copied a portion of that program, a portion that enables a programmer to call up prewritten software that, together with the computer’s hardware, will carry out a large number of specific tasks. The lower courts have considered (1) whether Java SE’s owner could copyright the portion that Google copied, and (2) if so, whether Google’s copying nonetheless constituted a “fair use” of that material, thereby freeing Google from copyright liability. The Federal Circuit held in Oracle’s favor (i.e., that the portion is copyrightable and Google’s copying did not constitute a “fair use”). In reviewing that decision, we assume, for argument’s sake, that the material was copyrightable. But we hold that the copying here at issue nonetheless constituted a fair use. Hence, Google’s copying did not violate the copyright law.”
As the Supreme Court Case Played Out
Because of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, only eight justices were able to hear the case when it was presented in October 2020. Since the case was presented before Amy Coney Barrett was sworn in, she did not participate in the final decisions on the case.
What Are the Ramifications of This Decision?
This decision sets a legal precedent that protects companies from being sued simply for using an API to pull pre-written code.
The jury is still out on what constitutes fair use in cases where a programmer may have illegitimately copied code that was pulled by the API.
In this particular case, Google was vindicated. The Supreme Court sided with them and in doing so established that the specific type of code use that Google was questioned for is protected by the doctrine of fair use.
Indeed, many companies are breathing a sigh of relief, because the decision broadened the scope of fair use. It now protects the use of an API to pull data.
Consider this scenario: You have the rights to a photo, after purchasing the rights through a company like Shutterstock.
But through some chain of events, you end up pulling data through an API, which contains the photo you purchased.
Shutterstock sues, and says that you don’t have the right to display said photo through the API.
Because of this decision, your behavior would be safely protected under the doctrine of fair use.
We feel that the Supreme Court’s decision is logical and reasonable in this case. We don’t think that companies should be punished for using code through an API on their projects.
In the case of Google, we believe that something this innocuous should not be subject to policing via lawsuit.
We also think this is a case of sour grapes, in which the other company saw how much Google made from the software they created using the API, and were bitter that they didn’t come up with it themselves.
Nonetheless, this decision has far-reaching implications and we feel it ultimately results in a more creator-friendly and competitive creative ecosystem.