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Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc. – U.S. copyright protection for software interfaces

| Category: Firm News

            On November 15, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court (“Supreme Court”) granted certiorari in Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc. The questions before the Supreme Court are whether: (1) copyright protection extends to a software interface, and (2) Google’s use of a software interface in the context of creating a new computer program constitutes fair use.

 

            In 2008, Google LLC (“Google”) released Android, “an open-source platform designed to enable mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. The Android platform was built using the Java programming language developed by Sun Microsystems, which was later acquired by Oracle American, Inc. (“Oracle”). Prior to Oracle’s acquisition of Sun Microsystems, Google replicated the syntax and structure of the Java application programming interface (“API) within the Android platform to ensure third-party developers could utilize the prewritten methods and declarations known within Java’s API libraries. Google replicated “37 Java API libraries that were determined by Google to be ‘key to mobile devices,’”  which attributed to only 3% of the Android environment. Google independently wrote the remainder of the code to “accommodate the unique challenges” of the mobile device environment. Upon its acquisition of Sun Microsystems, Oracle sued Google in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California (“District Court”), alleging copyright infringement for the replicated code.

 

At the end of trial, the District Court held the Java API was not copyrightable and rejected Google’s fair use defense, which permits the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works in certain circumstances. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (“Federal Circuit”) reversed and remanded the District Court’s decision. Specifically, the Federal Circuit found the Java API was subject to copyright protection and remanded the case because there was a lack of sufficient factual findings to resolve the fair use issue raised by Google in the District Court. On remand, the jury concluded Google’s use of the Java API constituted fair use. Oracle timely appealed. Once again on appeal in the Federal Circuit, the court overturned the jury’s verdict, finding Google did not engage in fair use as a matter of law. Google subsequently petitioned for certiorari, which the Supreme Court granted.

 

As stated above, the questions before the Supreme Court are whether: (1) copyright protection extends to a software interface, and (2) Google’s use of a software interface in the context of creating a new computer program constitutes fair use. In its petition for certiorari, Google asserts that if Federal Circuit’s approach is allowed to stand, “developers will be forced to abandon their traditional building-block approach to software interface development,” and in turn, “would have a devastating impact on the development of computer software.” Nevertheless, Oracle asserts that finding in favor of Google would penalize developers who create a popular software interfaces because they will lose protection to the fair use doctrine.

 

While it remains unclear as to how the Supreme Court will rule, many agree that the laws and industry standards regarding the protection of software interfaces will change regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision. We look forward to keeping you apprised of any further developments regarding this case.

 

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