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A decade-long copyright battle has ended with the Supreme Court landmark ruling in favor of Google. This decision lays a foundation for future software copyright cases, but the decision leaves many asking, “Is cutting and pasting software code actually fair use?”

Google v. Oracle started in 2010 when Oracle filed suit against Google alleging that Google’s unauthorized use of 37 packages of Oracle’s Java application programming interface (API) packages in its Android operating system (OS) infringed Oracle’s patents and copyrights.

  • In 2016 a District Court found that Google had not violated copyright laws because of fair use and that the API packages were not copyrightable.
  • Oracle appealed this finding, and in 2018 the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit disagreed with the 2016 ruling, finding that the Java API packages are entitled to copyright protection.
  • Google appealed the Federal Circuit decision to the Supreme Court in January 2019.

It is undisputed that Google copied verbatim the declaring code of the 37 Java API packages— 11,500 lines of Oracle’s copyrighted code. It also copied the SSO (Single Sign-on) of the Java API packages. Google then wrote its own implementing code.

The debate centers on:

  • Did Google copy others’ original and valuable work as a matter of its own convenience and for financial gain?
  • Did Google follow the long-accepted industry practice of re-using software interfaces that provide sets of commands that make it easy to implement common functionality?

The Supreme Court had to address:

  1. Does copyright protection extend to a software interface (were the 11,500 lines of software code at issue copyrightable)?
  2. Does the use of a software interface in the context of creating a new computer program constitute fair use?

Rather than answer if copyright protection extends to a software interface, the Supreme Court distinguished between declaring code and implementing code.  The Court then applied the Copyright Act’s four guiding factors to assess fair use.

  1. The purpose and character of the use. The Court assessed Google’s use as transformative.  Google integrated only selected elements and added its own implementing code.
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work. The Court recognized the declaring code and SSO were creative enough to qualify for copyright protection. However, in their words, “they were not highly creative,” and that “functional considerations predominated in their design.”
  3. The amount of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole. The Court realized Google copied only so much of JAVA code that was reasonably necessary for a transformative use and that the number of lines duplicated amounted to 0.4% of the relevant universe of code.
  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work. The Court found that declaring lines of code in Android caused no harm to the market for the copyrighted works.

This case took over ten years to reach conclusion with the Supreme Court’s decision, which illustrates the many exceptional characteristics of software copyright protection.  Rather than spend a decade trying to protect your IP, employ the experienced counsel of Ference & Associates to secure copyright protection for your software products.  Reach them today at 412.741.8400 or by email at contact@ferencelaw.com.

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About Us
Ference & Associates is a Pittsburgh, PA based law firm with a global client base. Our attorneys focus on patent, trademark, and copyright law.


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