It took nine long, argumentative and legally expensive years, but the nasty tussle between Oracle and Google over “fair use” of Java’s application programming interfaces has ended with a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to keep Java APIs in the free domain for software developers.
The high court on April 5 ruled 6-2 in favor of Google in the Google v. Oracle case, reversing the ruling of an appeals court and confirming that Google’s copying of the Java API (owned by Oracle through its acquisition of Sun Microsystems in 2009) was a fair use of that material “as a matter of law.” Justice Stephen Breyer authored the majority opinion.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who was not yet confirmed by the Senate when the case was argued in October, did not participate in the case. Breyer was joined in the majority by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented.
Google took “only what was needed to allow users to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program,” Breyer wrote. “To the extent that Google used parts of the Sun Java API to create a new platform that could be readily used by programmers, its use was consistent with that creative ‘progress’ that is the basic constitutional objective of copyright itself,” he added.
The case is considered a landmark dispute over what types of application code are protected under American copyright law. At issue were 37 Java API packages that Oracle claimed were copyrighted and patent protected and which Google has used in Android without obtaining a license first. Google had copied about 11,500 lines of API code from the Java SE platform to use in Android. So Oracle sued for $9.3 billion in damages, claiming Google illegally disrupted its Java business model.
Decision echoed that of 2012 case
The SCOTUS came to the same conclusion as that of federal circuit court Judge William Alsup, who ruled on May 31, 2012 that Java application programming interfaces used by Google in building the Android mobile device operating system were not protected by copyright due to their open-source status. Four years later, a second court backed Google’s case.
Nonetheless, Oracle–obviously aiming for a Supreme Court decision–doggedly chose to keep the appellate process moving and later was able to extend the legal jousting for years. In 2018, it was encouraged by a second appeals court, which concluded that Google had indeed usurped Oracle’s copyrights. Confusion reigned for months after that; Google was leading 2-1 in court decisions by then–until the April 5 decision by the Supreme Court.
Now, on April 5, 2021, the case is finally laid to rest.
Why Java is such an important protocol
Java, which had been in the ownership of Sun Microsystems starting with its launch in 1995, was released to the open-source community in November 2006. Java is a low-level code protocol used to activate and run applications on many devices at once over the internet. It was originally created to be used for television–that is, until the internet came of age in the mid-1990s. Subsequently, Java became a key building block for the internet.
“Here’s how to think of Java,” Dr. James Gosling, who ran the Java development team and is widely known as the father of Java, told this reporter in 1995. “Picture a handheld computer (Palm Pilot at the time); then think of a desktop computer. Put a big-hunk server behind them; now, line them all up, and they all look the same in Java. That’s what it’s about.”
In building its popular Android OS–which it had acquired in 2005 to build its own smartphone–and using its own techniques, Google deployed the Java APIs to create its own, or “forked,” version of Java. Because the Google developers custom-coded their version of Java for proprietary use inside their own system, the Android version of Java is not sanctioned by the Java community and therefore not eligible for updates and support from Oracle’s Java maintainers. Naturally, Google never expected to get support from Oracle for this project.
Oracle’s reaction to the ruling
Oracle Senior Vice President Deborah Hellinger issued a terse response on April 5: “The Google platform just got bigger and market power greater. The barriers to entry higher and the ability to compete lower. They stole Java and spent a decade litigating as only a monopolist can. This behavior is exactly why regulatory authorities around the world and in the United States are examining Google’s business practices.”
In the first decision against it in 2012, Oracle made the following statement, which remains its standpoint today:
“Oracle is committed to the protection of Java as both a valuable development platform and a valuable intellectual property asset. It will vigorously pursue an appeal of this decision in order to maintain that protection and to continue to support the broader Java community of over 9 million developers and countless law-abiding enterprises. Google’s implementation of the accused APIs is not a free pass, since a license has always been required for an implementation of the Java Specification. And the court’s reliance on ‘interoperability’ ignores the undisputed fact that Google deliberately eliminated interoperability between Android and all other Java platforms. Google’s implementation intentionally fragmented Java and broke the “write once, run anywhere” promise. This ruling, if permitted to stand, would undermine the protection for innovation and invention in the United States and make it far more difficult to defend intellectual property rights against companies anywhere in the world that simply takes them as their own.”
But the SCOTUS didn’t buy this argument.
Reactions from thought leaders
Here are some early reactions to the decision from eWEEK sources.
Google Senior Vice President for Global Affairs Kent Walker said in Twitter post that “Today’s Supreme Court decision in Google v. Oracle is a big win for innovation, interoperability & computing. Thanks to the country’s leading innovators, software engineers & copyright scholars for their support.”
In a friend-of-the-court brief filed in the case, Microsoft argued that the earlier federal appeals court decision “threatens modern paradigms of software development.”
“The long-settled practice of reusing software interfaces is critical to modern software development,” Google attorney Tom Goldstein told the justices during arguments.
IT analyst Charles King
Charles King, a highly respected IT business and tech analyst who’s a regular contributor to eWEEK, had this perspective:
“Broadly speaking, the SCOTUS ruling on Google vs. Oracle falls into the ‘sometimes the good guys win’ hopper. Not to imply that Google is an entirely good guy here, but supporting Oracle’s argument that APIs deserved outright copyright status requires substantially ignoring decades of software history and conventional developer practices, including what James Gosling and his team at Sun Microsystems intended for Java.
“The ruling also put the lie to the notion that SCOTUS justices and other non-technically oriented officials are somehow unable to make balanced decisions in complex tech industry disagreements. Stephen Breyer’s majority opinion that copying APIs was covered by fair use rules cogently addressed the case at hand without drifting into the weeds. I expect a lot of developers and software-focused companies will be celebrating tonight. However, the same can’t be said for the vendors and legions of attorneys who planned to piggyback on an Oracle win with their own API infringement suits and requests for damages.”
Hannu Valtonen, Aiven CPO
Hannu Valtonen is Chief Product Officer at Helsinki-based Aiven, which develops and manages cloud service hosting for software infrastructure services and relies on open APIs. Valtonen said in a media advisory that the SCOTUS decision was a vital one in terms of sustaining innovation.
“The Supreme Court’s decision to side with Google in its long copyright dispute with Oracle is a victory for the entire software industry,” Valtonen said. “If Oracle had won, Google’s usage of the Java API in developing the Android operating system would be considered copyright infringement. A change to the fair use of APIs would’ve severely slowed down the current pace of software innovation and created more cutthroat competition between tech giants, who could potentially block the use of an API without payment.
“For startups like ours, the fair and open usage of certain technologies promotes successful innovation for everyone, and Google’s win is certainly a positive result for end-users.”
Intellectual property attorney Michael Keyes
Michael Keyes is a partner at the international law firm Dorsey & Whitney. Keyes is an intellectual property attorney with extensive trial and litigation experience in cases involving trademarks, copyrights, unfair competition and false advertising. He has tried several cases in federal courts across the United States. He’s been following the Google v. Oracle case through the courts.
“The Supreme Court issued the biggest copyright decision in a generation today,” Keyes wrote. “It held that Google’s copying of Oracle’s API was fair use as a matter of law. It’s hard to overstate the significance of this decision.
“There are several notable aspects: The court noted that fair use has an important role to play for computer programs by providing a context-based check that keeps the copyright monopoly afforded to computer programs within its lawful bounds. I suspect this theme will unlock many future arguments and claims regarding the application of fair use to software related claims. We will see more copying, more cases, and more claims of fair use,” Keyes said.
“The court clarified how reviewing courts should review fair use decisions. The ultimate question of whether the facts rise to the level of fair use is reviewed de novo. This means that there will always be room to argue on appeal that the jury or trial judge got it wrong.
“The court also clarified what ‘market harm’ means in the context of fair use of computer programs. The court focused not on harm in the general sense but on whether the second work acts as a ‘market substitute.’ That seems to be a tighter standard than courts have looked at in the past. The court also noted that you’ve got to balance the ‘harm’ to the copyright holder vs. the likely benefits to society. And the court also looked at Sun’s early pronouncements that Google’s use would be ‘helpful’ to Sun. This means that ‘market harm’ isn’t straightforward and one-dimensional. A number of facts—including early statements and conduct by the copyright holder—will come into play in assessing harm.”
Finally: “The court’s decision (also) wiped away a massive claim for damages (many billions) against Google,” Keyes concluded. Make that $9.3 billion.