Case analysis: Google LLC v. Oracle America Inc.

U.S. Supreme Court decides that Google’s copying of 11,500 lines of code from Oracle’s Java SE program comprised reasonable use.

Oracle Corp. filed suit against Google Inc. in 2010. It said that Google’s Android software for mobile devices were infringing Java copyrights that belonged to Oracle which it acquired while buying Sun Microsystems Inc. Google copied the “declaring code” from Oracle’s Application Programming Interface (API), 

 API is a tool that will allow the programmers to use prewritten code for building certain functions into their own programs, making it easy, rather than to write their own code to perform the same functions. It was done so that the programmers fluent in Java could easily use the new system from scratch.

 Google responded that the declaring code it had used was not copyrightable at all. The district court and two juries agreed with Google, whereas the Federal Circuit twice reversed those judgments. The Supreme Court then granted certiorari and agreed to review the Federal Circuit’s rulings concerning both copyrightability and fair use.

The decision, 6-2 which was pronounced by Justice Breyer, the Court reversed the decision of 

Federal Circuit and said that Google’s use of Oracle’s code did constitute fair use and was just. The Court decided not to consider the issue of copyright, since- 

  • Finding of fair use dispensed with Oracle’s claims, and “given the rapidly changing technological, economic, and business-related circumstances,
  • The court “believed it should not answer more than is necessary to resolve the parties dispute.”
  • The Court assumed, just for the sake of argument that the declaring code at issue was copyrightable and addressed only the question of fair use.

Google argued that fair use is a question for a jury to decide which the court addressed, the jury decided in Google’s favor and the court’s review was, therefore, to be limited only to determine whether the substantial evidence justified the jury’s decision.

 The Court then rejected Google’s argument and instead agreed with the Federal Circuit that fair use was a mixed question of fact and law. 

While the reviewing courts should defer to the jury’s findings of underlying facts, the most important question of whether those facts demonstrate a fair use is a question of law that was appropriate for de novo review.

 The Court used Section 107 fair use factors and started with the second factor- “The nature of the copyrighted work.”

 It elected not to rule on copyrightability but the Court did address copyrightability in discussing this particular factor. Oracle’s API has three important parts which were:

  • The “implementing code,” which instructs the computer for the steps to follow and how to carry out each task; a particular command called “method call,” which the API associates with the calling up of each task;
  • And the declaring code, which combines the writing of a method call with particular “places” in the computer that contains the needed implementing code.

 Oracle pushed for the infringement of the declaring code. The Court was of the reason that the declaring code is “inextricably bound together with a general system, the division of computing tasks” and “the idea of organizing tasks” that are not copyrightable. The Court also laid down on the fact that the declaring code was created for finding names that would be intuitively easy to remember and so, unlike other computer programs, the value of the declaring code derives from computer programmers, who invest their own time and effort to learn the API’s system, not copyright holders. The Court commented intensively that the value of the declaring code lies with the efforts which lead to encourage the programmers to learn and use the other parts of the API as well, such as the implementing code. Google did not copy the implementing code.

The Court decided that the declaring code is, “if at all copyrightable, further than are most computer programs such as the implementing code from the core of copyright.” Obviously, the second fair use factor weighed in favor of fair use.

The Court then considered the first fair use factor which was “the purpose and character of the use.”

 The court acknowledged that Google did copy some portions of Oracle’s API for exactly the same reason for which it was created i.e to enable programmers to call up implementing programs that would accomplish particular tasks

The Court said that since any unauthorized use of a computer program which is copyrighted and that use be virtual, anybody would do the same, to determine whether the use of a computer program is “transformative,” the court must go further and examine the copying’s more specifically described “purposes” and “character.”

 As for the specific purposes and character in which Google used the program, the Court explained that Google re-implemented the code. Google’s use sought to create new products which were to expand the use and usefulness of Android smartphones, and it offered programmers a hugely creative, useful, and innovative tool for the environment of a smartphone.

The Court made it clear that Google’s use “was consistent with that creative ‘progress’ that is the basic constitutional objective of copyright itself,” and the first fair use factor weighs in favor of fair use.

The Court addressed two additional considerations under the first fair use factor before it turned to the third fair use- “commerciality and good faith.”

For commerciality, the Court concluded that Google’s use was clearly commercial in nature but this does not weigh against a finding of fair use. Against bad faith, the Court found the “skepticism” it expressed in its 1994 decision in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., concerning whether bad faith had any role in fair use analysis, “justifiable.”

 The Court did not conclude as to good faith would be a helpful inquiry as a general matter, though it noted that bad faith was not determinative in this context and given the strength of the other factors which pointed toward fair use and the jury’s finding in Google’s favor.

The Court then addressed the third fair use factor: “the amount or substantiality of the portion used.” 

The court concluded considering in mind the nature and purpose of the code copied, the best way to consider amount and substantiality was to consider the several million lines of Oracle’s API code that Google did not copy, which was substantial.

 The Court said that this factor weighs in the favor of fair use as was the case, the amount of copying was for a valid, and transformative, purpose.

 The Court also rejected the conclusion given by the Federal Circuit’s that Google could have achieved its Java-compatibility objective by copying only the 170 lines of code that are “necessary to write in the Java language,” it explained that Google’s goal was to allow programmers to make use of their knowledge and experience while using Oracle’s API when they wrote new programs for smart phones with the Android platform. This objective would not have been achieved whether or not Google would have created a different code. 

The court wrote that “the declaring code was the key that Google needed to unlock the programmers’ creative energies. And it needed those energies to create and to improve its own innovative Android systems.” Thus, the court held that this factor weighed in favor of fair use.

The Court considered the fourth fair use factor- “the effect of the use on the potential market for or value of the work.”

 This factor is much more complex for computer programs such as Oracle’s API, the Court must consider not only potential loss of revenue but also the source of the same, also the public benefits of copying.

 The Court concluded that Oracle’s ability to compete in Android’s market was uncertain, the source of its lost revenue having much to do with third parties was the investment in its Java programs, as opposed to the Java API. The risk of creativity-related harms to the public if fair use was not found, this factor also weighed in favor of fair use.

Justice Thomas who was against the judgment concluded that the “result of this distorting analysis is an opinion that makes it difficult to imagine any circumstance in which declaring code will remain protected by copyright.” The dissent went on to conduct its own analysis of each fair use factor, without distinguishing between declaring and implementing code. In particular, with respect to the first fair use factor, the dissent criticized the majority’s conclusion that a computer code that will simply help others “create new products” is transformative for purposes of the fair use analysis, asserting that this “new definition eviscerates copyright,” and concluding that this first fair use factor weighed decidedly against Google. The dissent asserted that the third and fourth factors also weighed against fair use and that the sole factor that could possibly favor Google, the nature of the copyrighted work, was insufficient to support a finding of fair use.

Aishwarya Says

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