The U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion on April 5, 2021 that held “Google’s copying of the Java SE API, which included only those lines of code that were needed to allow programmers to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program, was a fair use of that material as a matter of law.” Google’s Android operating system relies on the copied code and Oracle had sought $9 billion in damages.
The Supreme Court’s opinion reversed the March 2018 decision of the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit which held that “Google’s copying and use of this particular code was not fair as a matter of law” (emphasis added), because “Google created exact copies of the declaring code and [structure, sequence and organization, or] SSO and used those copies for the same purpose as the original material” and “no reasonable jury could conclude that what was copied was qualitatively insignificant, particularly when the material copied was important to the creation of the Android platform.”
The Supreme Court’s opinion, written by Justice Stephen Breyer, was joined by five other members of the Supreme Court with Justices Thomas and Alito dissenting and Justice Barrett not participating as having been appointed after the oral hearing on October 7, 2020. Justice Breyer’s opinion summarized the facts as, “Google copied that portion of the Sun Java API that allowed programmers expert in the Java programming language to use the “task calling” system that they had already learned.” The portion copied contained “37 packages at issue included those tasks that were likely to prove most useful to programmers working on applications for mobile devices. In fact, ‘three of these packages were . . . fundamental to being able to use the Java language at all.’”
The litigation began shortly after Oracle purchased Sun, the developer of Java, in 2010. According to Justice Breyer’s summary, the jury found limited copyright infringement and deadlocked on Google’s fair use defense. Judge Alsup in the Northern District of California in 2012 held that “the API’s declaring code was not the kind of creation to which copyright law extended its protection.” The case was appealed to the Federal Circuit due to the allegation of patent infringement in the original lawsuit. The Federal Circuit reversed in 2014, holding “that both the API’s declaring code and its organizational structure could be copyrighted.” However, the Federal Circuit opinion said “the record contains [in]sufficient factual findings upon which we could base a de novo assessment of Google’s affirmative defense of fair use” and the case was remanded for another trial on that question.
On remand from the 2014 Federal Circuit decision, a jury found in 2016 that Google’s copying of “the declaring code and organizational structure contained in the 37 Sun Java API packages …constitute[d] a ‘fair use’ under the Copyright Act”. This decision was again appealed to the Federal Circuit, even though no patent questions remained, because the Federal Circuit had heard the first appeal. The Federal Circuit again reversed, finding Google’s copying to be not fair use, as noted above.
The Supreme Court’s opinion, as well as the Federal Circuit’s 2014 and 2018 decisions and Judge Alsup’s orders in 2012 and 2016 are available by clicking on the links in this sentence.