Great news from the Supreme Court of the United States.
In a ruling on Monday, the Supreme Court found that Google could legally use elements of Oracle’s Java application programming interface (API) code when building Android.
“Google’s copying of the API to reimplement a user interface, taking only what was needed to allow users to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program, constituted a fair use of that material,” the Supreme Court ruled in a 6-2 opinion, with one justice (Amy Coney Barrett) not taking part in the ruling. It overturned an earlier federal decision, which found that Google’s use of the API had constituted infringement.
Not only is Google’s specific use case declared fair use, but any and all similar cases are fair use as well, as a matter of law, the Supreme Court ruled.
We reach the conclusion that in this case, where Google reimplemented a user interface, taking only what was needed to allow users to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program, Google’s copying of the Sun Java API was a fair use of that material as a matter of law.
Not only is this the only possible correct and proper ruling, it also means Oracle and Larry Ellison fall flat on their face which is always a joyous occasion as far as I’m concerned. And so ends the saga that, according to my pet conspiracy theory, was set up as one-two punch between Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison, who were incredibly close friends. Apple’s patent assault on Android vendors and Oracle’s attack on Google’s Android API usage happened at the same time, right after Jobs proclaimed he would go “thermonuclear war” on Android.
Now, you can argue that these two simultaneous assaults were entirely coincidental, and that these two close friends did not coordinate their attacks in any way. I, on the other hand, remain convinced this was a premeditated, coordinated assault on Android – entirely befitting the two, by all accounts, unpleasant people Jobs and Ellison are.
I think the majority of the industry would agree that only implementation and not APIs should be copyrightable. This isn’t technically what the supreme court has ruled though. They ruled only on google’s fair use right to override oracle’s API copyrights, not on the copyrightability of APIs themselves. It’s a big win for google, and helps to set some precedent, but fair rights are still going to be determined on a case by case basis. Because APIs are still considered copyrightable it is still possible to be found guilty of API copyright infringement over circumstantial technicalities and highly paid lawyers are proficient at coming up with technicalities.
For example, does a project like wine have a fair use right to use microsoft’s API copyrights? The supreme court ruling in favor of google doesn’t give us a clear answer because the circumstances are very different. So I am very glad this ruling happened to overturn the terrible decision in the federal circuit, but it would have been better to declare that APIs are public domain and free for everyone to create their own implementation. As it stands, developers can still face legal risks by reimplementing competing APIs.