By Kaitlyn Rentala
Kaitlyn Rentala is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE).
On March 24, 2020, the Supreme Court was scheduled to hear Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc., a pivotal copyright infringement case that could alter the way in which software companies intrinsically operate. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Supreme Court announced that the March argument session and its 11 cases would be postponed until an undetermined time. In Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc., the Supreme Court will finally decide if Google will have to pay Oracle billions of dollars for the copyright that runs hundreds of millions of phones around the world, and their decision will mark the end of almost eight years of numerous federal court cases and appeals launched from both sides.
The issue at the heart of Google v. Oracle is whether Oracle can claim a copyright on Java APIs and whether or not Google violated that copyright . APIs, or Application Program Interfaces, are sets of definitions and protocols that allow for programs to communicate with each other . An example of an API is “when you read an article online, and click on the icon to share that article via Twitter” . That icon, which the developer directly got from Twitter, is an example of the functionality of an API. When Google implemented the Android OS, it wrote its own form of the programming language Java. But in order to allow for developers to create their own programs for Android, Google’s implementation used the same names and functionalities as Java. Since Java was bought by Oracle in 2010, Oracle sued Google for copyright infringement.
In the district court case after Oracle first sued Google in 2012, Judge William Alsup of the Northern District of California ruled that APIs are not subject to copyright. Judge Alsup stated that giving Oracle the copyright to the APIs would dangerously unilaterally tie up the code that provides much of the basis for innovation today. Coding languages cannot be subject to copyright when, “there is only one way to declare a given method functionality, [so that] everyone using that function must write that specific line of code in the same way” . This essentially means that a line of code cannot be copyrighted when it is integral to the writing of one certain coding sequence. In May 2014, Oracle appealed the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit where the judges reversed the District Court’s decision and found APIs copyrightable. Google submitted a petition for review to the Supreme Court in 2015 but the Court denied their petition for review.
In May 2016, the case returned to district court for a trial, this time based on Google’s fair use defense. Fair use doctrine in copyright law is the idea that any use of copyrighted material for a limited or “transformative” purpose is acceptable . While transformative use is still fairly new in copyright law, many scholars consider something like audio and visual remixes as examples of transformative use since it incorporates existing content to create new material . In the new trial in 2016, the jury ruled in favor of Google’s fair use defense, but the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the ruling in 2018. They decided that the use was not transformative and harmed the market value of existing phones based on existing Java SE .
Google made four arguments while petitioning the Supreme Court to review their case, which was later granted. First, Google argued that the Federal Circuit erred when equating APIs with the copyright to the code itself; the API is a “method of operation” and thus a necessary function for utilizing Java SE. Second, Google noted the circuit split on “methods of operation” and the First and Sixth Circuits’ rulings that methods of operations are not copyrightable since they are ideas themselves. Third, Google argued that the Federal Circuit placed excessive emphasis on individual factors on the fair use test and should have looked at the transformative impact of using Java APIs holistically. Fourth, Google argued it is critical that the circuit split on APIs must be resolved since APIs are widely used in the technology industry .
While most of the technology industry, as well as prominent think tanks like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Democracy and Technology, is on the side of Google, Oracle has prominent supporters like the American Conservative Union Foundation . Oracle argued that Google should be liable for copying code from the Java language for the Android programming system because protecting Oracle’s code is fundamental for the system of private property rights. Oracle noted that the copyright protections are essential incentives for innovation and Google’s use of their APIs undermine the entire orderly system of intellectual property rights .
Ultimately, the ruling of the Supreme Court will have a monumental effect on the status of copyright laws in the tech industry. If the Supreme Court upholds the Federal Circuit’s ruling and decides that APIs are subject to copyright laws, there will be a period of massive disruption as companies figure out what projects are safe to pursue. Tech companies will be more reluctant to take on innovative projects and software development will become more expensive as companies are forced to acquire patents. Regardless, all eyes will be focused on the Supreme Court and its ultimate ruling in the future.
The opinions and views expressed in this publication are the opinions of the designated authors and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal, our staff, or our clients.
 “Oracle v. Google.” Electronic Frontier Foundation, 18 Jan. 2020, www.eff.org/cases/oracle-v-google.
 “What Is an API?” Red Hat - We Make Open Source Technologies for the Enterprise, www.redhat.com/en/topics/api/what-are-application-programming-interfaces.
 Ibid 1
 Samuels, Julie. “No Copyrights on APIs: Judge Defends Interoperability and Innovation.” Electronic Frontier Foundation, 1 June 2012, www.eff.org/deeplinks/2012/05/no-copyrights-apis-judge-defends-interoperability-and-innovation.
 Stim, Richard, and Rich Stim. “What Is Fair Use?” Stanford Copyright and Fair Use Center, 11 Apr. 2017, fairuse.stanford.edu/overview/fair-use/what-is-fair-use/.
 “Copyright Services.” University Libraries, www.lib.umn.edu/copyright/fairuse.
 Ward, Aaron. “Google v. Oracle: Silicon Valley Braces for ‘Lawsuit of the Decade’ as Google Petitions for Cert to Decide API Copyrightability.” Harvard Journal of Law & Technology, 13 Mar. 2019, jolt.law.harvard.edu/digest/google-v-oracle-silicon-valley-braces-for-lawsuit-of-the-decade-as-google-petitions-for-cert-to-decide-api-copyrightability.
 Ibid 7
 Robertson, Adi. “As Google Heads to the Supreme Court, Oracle Takes Aim at Its Industry Allies.” The Verge, The Verge, 19 Feb. 2020, www.theverge.com/2020/2/19/21142366/google-supreme-court-oracle-java-copyright-microsoft-ibm.
 Caballar, Rina. “Google v. Oracle Explained: The Fight for Interoperable Software.” IEEE Spectrum: Technology, Engineering, and Science News, 2020, spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/computing/software/google-v-oracle-explained-supreme-court-news-apis-software.
Photo Credits: https://flic.kr/p/EsrJpV