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Apr 202120
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Supreme Court Finds Google’s Copying of API to be Fair Use

The Supreme Court has decided in favor of Google in a copyright case that pitted the software company against Oracle, the owner of the popular Java programming language.  When creating its Android platform for smartphones, Google copied about 11,500 of declaring code from the Java SE application programming interface (API) that allows programmers to use prewritten computing tasks to write their own programs.  The Federal Circuit had found Google guilty of copyright infringement, but the Supreme Court reversed, holding that Google’s copying of the code was fair use.

Declaring code acts as an organizational structure for the programs of the API and serves as a sort of dictionary that gives names to each of these programs.  Underlying implementation code is then used to instruct the computer how to actually execute the task that is called for by the declaring code.  Google wrote its own implementation code, but copied a portion of the Java SE declaring code. Therefore, programmers who were already familiar with the language used for Java would not have to learn a new language for at least some of the programs offered in the Android platform.

Although Google asked for the Supreme Court to decide whether declaring code was even copyrightable, the Court declined to answer this question.  Instead, the Court based its decision on the doctrine of fair use.  Because computer programs always serve a functional purpose, the Court stated that fair use is an important consideration for determining the scope of copyright protection for computer programs.  The declaring code in particular has a functional purpose that is inherently bound together with uncopyrightable ideas and new creative expression.  For this reason, declaring code is further from the core of copyright than other types of computer code, such as the implementing code.

In finding for fair use, the Supreme Court stated that Google’s use of the copied declaring code was transformative, as Android was built for smartphones while Java is typically used for laptops and desktops.  The Court also found that Google’s use was a reimplementation of the Java declaring code.  Google took only what was necessary to allow programmers to use their existing knowledge of Java and to use their talents in a new and transformative platform.

This decision suggests that courts should grant a generous view on fair use to developers of APIs and interoperable computer programs.  To read the entire opinion, click here.