In a long-running Java software code case with Oracle, the Supreme Court ruled 6-2 in favor of Google on April 5th. The Supreme Court of the United States reversed an earlier ruling in a copyright dispute involving the Java programming language in which Oracle was seeking a $9 billion payout.
“We reach the conclusion that in this case, where Google re-implemented 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 Stephen Breyer wrote.
The case concerned 12,000 lines of code that Google used to create Android, which were copied from Sun Microsystems’ Java application programming interface, which Oracle acquired in 2010. It was regarded as a watershed moment in the debate about which forms of computer code are covered by copyright laws in the United States.
In copyright infringement cases, the courts must weigh four factors known as “fair use.” The court inquires as to the use’s intent and character, the essence of the copyrighted work, the sum and significance of the portion used, and the use’s impact.
In his majority opinion, Breyer determined that Google’s use of the APIs met all four criteria, concluding that the court determined that its use constituted a fair use and therefore did not breach copyright law at the time in question.
Google can now use these Java APIs in Android without restriction. Companies would not be able to claim a hard copyright claim over APIs in general, which is particularly relevant for the entire software development industry. Many worried that if they were able to claim strict copyrights over APIs, it would spark a tsunami of copyright troll litigation, making patent troll lawsuits look like jay-walking tickets.
Although this decision does not rule out the possibility of copyrighting APIs, it does clarify that you cannot prevent other developers from freely using your APIs to create new programmes under the fair use doctrine. To put it another way, programmers will continue to use APIs in their projects in the same way that they have for decades.