A jury recently issued a significant verdict in a legal fight between two major technology companies, although it might not resolve some questions brought up by the litigation. The two companies are fighting over protocols used in a wide range of software applications, known as application programming interfaces (APIs). The plaintiff sued for copyright infringement, alleging that the defendant unlawfully appropriated its APIs for use in its mobile device operating system. Oracle America, Inc. v. Google, Inc., No. 3:10-cv-03561, complaint (N.D. Cal., Aug. 12, 2010). APIs are essential tools for countless digital technologies, so the outcome of this case ought to be of great interest to anyone who regularly uses the web. A federal judge ruled in 2012 that APIs are not subject to copyright infringement, but an appellate court reversed that ruling. On remand, a jury found that Google breached Oracle’s copyright, but the breach was excused under the Fair Use Doctrine.
Copyright law protects “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression.” 17 U.S.C. § 102(a). This includes books and other written works, musical recordings, video or film recordings, and software code. It does not, however, include “any idea, procedure, process, system, [or] method of operation.” Id. at § 102(b). A copyright can be a very valuable asset for a business, and copyright owners must take affirmative steps to protect their copyright interests. The Fair Use Doctrine holds that unauthorized use of a copyrighted work is not infringement under certain circumstances, including “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching…, scholarship, or research,” provided that the use is “transformative.” Id. at § 107; Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, 510 U.S. 569, 579 (1994).
The Oracle case presented the question of whether APIs are subject to copyright protection, or whether they are non-copyrightable procedures or processes. An API, simply stated, allows one software application to communicate or interface with another application, acting as a sort of translator between different pieces of software. APIs are essential parts of many common digital technologies, allowing mobile devices to run a wide range of applications and allowing websites to interface with social media services like Facebook and Twitter, to name just two examples.
Sun Microsystems created the Java programming language in the 1990s. Java is a key part of Google’s Android operating system for smartphones, and Google adapted multiple Java APIs for use in Android. While the Android APIs retained some features of the Java APIs, including file names and classifications, Google made substantial modifications in creating the Google APIs. Oracle acquired Sun in 2009. It filed suit against Google in 2010, claiming that its use of 37 Java APIs constituted copyright infringement.
A federal judge ruled in 2012 that the Java APIs were not subject to copyright protection in the context of Google’s usage, largely on the grounds that they are non-copyrightable processes or procedures. 872 F.Supp.2d 974 (N.D. Cal. 2012). The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed this ruling. 750 F.3d 1339 (Fed. Cir. 2014). On remand, the case went to a jury trial in May 2016. The jury’s verdict found that Google infringed Oracle’s copyright. It awarded Oracle no damages, however, finding that Google’s use of the APIs was protected by the Fair Use Doctrine.
Samuel C. Berger is a business formation attorney who practices in the New York City and Northern New Jersey areas. We offer numerous fixed-fee legal-service packages to businesses, small business owners, and entrepreneurs, which address a wide range of legal matters. To schedule a confidential consultation to see how we can help you or your business, contact us today online, at (201) 587-1500, or at (212) 380-8117.
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