April 5, 2021
Decided April 5, 2021
Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc., No. 18-956
Today, the Supreme Court held 6-2 that Google’s use of the Java interface in the Android platform falls within the fair use doctrine.
Sun Microsystems launched the Java platform in the 1990s to allow software developers to write and run applications in the Java programming language. The Java platform includes pre-written code to perform a number of common functions (e.g., calculating an arithmetic mean), which software developers can incorporate directly into their own applications through the use of the Java software interface. By using Java’s software interface in their applications, developers avoid having to compose the underlying, functional code themselves.
Google launched its Android operating system in 2008. Like Java, Android includes pre-written code to perform certain common functions, making it easier for developers to create applications for Android. Although the code used by Android to perform these functions is entirely original, Android used portions of Java’s software interface. By doing so, Google allowed developers to create applications for Android using the same interface that they use to create applications for Java. In all, Android uses 11,330 lines (or 0.4 percent) of Java’s software interface.
After acquiring Java from Sun Microsystems, Oracle sued Google for copyright infringement based on Android’s use of the Java software interface. The district court concluded that copyright protection did not extend to the Java software interface, but the Federal Circuit reversed, concluding that Java’s software interface is protectable under copyright law and that the merger doctrine, which bars copyright protection when there are only a few ways to express a function, was inapplicable. On remand, a jury found that Google’s use of the Java software interface was protected under the fair use doctrine, but the Federal Circuit again reversed.
Does the Copyright Act protect a software interface and, if so, does Android’s use of the Java software interface constitute fair use?
The Court assumed, “purely for argument’s sake,” that the Java interface is protected by copyright, and held that Google’s use of that interface in the Android platform falls within the fair use doctrine.
“We reach the conclusion that in this case, 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.”
Justice Breyer, writing for the Court
What It Means:
The Court’s opinion is available here.
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Related Practice: Intellectual Property
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