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Supreme Court Holds That Google's Use of Oracle's Java API Is "Fair Use"

In Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc., the Supreme Court of the United States held that Google's copying of roughly 11,500 lines of code from Oracle's Java SE Application Programming Interface ("API") was a "fair use" of that material and, therefore, did not constitute copyright infringement.

Justice Breyer delivered the Opinion of the Court, in which Justices Roberts, Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh joined. The Court distinguished the interface code from the functional code developed by programmers, stating that the function of an API is to enable programmers to call upon prewritten tasks for use in the programmers' own software programs. The Court assumed the interface code was copyrightable, but found that the copying in question constituted fair use, concluding:

"[W]here 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."

In considering Google's unpermitted copying of a portion of Java SE when developing its new Android software platform for mobile devices, the Court examined the Copyright Act's four guiding factors for the fair-use provisions:

  • Nature of Copyrighted Work

The Court determined that because the copied lines of code are part of a "user interface," the copied lines of code are "inherently bound together with uncopyrightable ideas . . . and the creation of new creative expression," referring, respectively, to the organization of the Java API and the code that Google independently wrote.

  • Purpose and Character of the Use

The Court found that Google's limited copying is a "transformative use" of the API, as Google copied only that which was needed for programmers to work in a different computing environment. As Google was effectively re-implementing the interface to create its new Android platform for the smartphone environment, the Court stated, Google's purpose was consistent "with that creative progress that is the basic constitutional objective of copyright itself."

  • Amount and Substantiality of the Portion Used in Relation to Copyrighted Work as a Whole

The Court explained that the 11,500 lines of declaring code copied by Google, which represents most of the declaring code needed to call hundreds of tasks, make up only 0.4 percent of the entire Java API, which consists of 2.86 million total lines. The amount of copying was found to favor a finding of fair use, as it was tethered to a valid and transformative purpose of allowing programmers to apply their skills to a new smartphone environment.

  • Effect of the Use upon the Potential Market for, or Value of, the Copyrighted Work

The market effects of the copying also favored fair use because Google's new smartphone platform is not a market substitute for Java SE, and enforcement of copyright rights would risk "creativity-related" harm to the public.

Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Alito joined. Justice Thomas stated that the Court reached this fair-use result by bypassing the question of whether the software code at issue is protected by the Copyright Act, and assuming without deciding that the code is protected. Justice Thomas added, "By skipping over the copyrightability question, the majority disregards half the relevant statutory text and distorts its fair-use analysis."

Justice Barrett took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

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