Supreme Court considers Google’s copy of Oracle’s APIs to be fair use | International network of lawyers

A recent Supreme Court ruling ultimately ended the long-standing fight between Oracle and Google over Google’s use of Oracle’s Java application programming interfaces (APIs). The Supreme Court ruling held that, unlike the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that was discussed in our previous alert, Google’s use of Oracle’s APIs was protected by the legal defense. author of fair use. This move is likely to create greater opportunities for developers to use copyrighted API code.

Oracle Java Platform
Oracle owns the widely used Java platform and Java programming language. The Java platform is available for free under certain circumstances under an open source license to be used to write and run programs that use the Java programming language, and it can run these programs on various types of hardware without having to rewrite the program to each different. type. However, Oracle charges a license fee for developers who wish to use its APIs on a competing platform or electronic device. In 2008, Java included 166 API packages.

In programming languages ​​like Java, an API is essentially a coding shortcut. It is a “label” which allows you to call the actual code necessary for the implementation of a given function (implementation code). By using these labels, programmers can use existing code to implement a function rather than having to write new code to implement that function for each new platform or system. This allows programmers to write code in a new environment without having to learn a whole new coding language.

Oracle vs. Google
In this case, Google copied 37 Java API packages and wrote its own implementation code underlying these API packages for use by developers on its Android operating system. Google hoped that by allowing Java developers to code using the same API shortcuts they were already familiar with, they would inspire developers to work on the Android system. Google had initially approached the original owner of Java, Sun Microsystems, before Oracle acquired them, to pay a license fee for the use of these APIs on its competing Android platform, but those negotiations failed and Google continued to use APIs without a license.

Oracle filed a lawsuit against Google, claiming that by copying the 37 APIs, Google infringed Oracle’s copyright on that code. Previously, as part of the action, the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the structure, sequencing and organization of the Java API packages were protected by copyright. The Court of Appeal then considered whether Google’s use of Oracle’s APIs was nonetheless excused by the fair use defense, which functions as a limited exception to copyright infringement and allows copying of a work protected by copyright in limited circumstances. In considering the issue, the Court of Appeal ruled that the fair use defense was not applicable. Google then tried to appeal this decision to the Supreme Court, which agreed to take up the matter.

The Supreme Court’s decision
In its decision, the Supreme Court overturned the Court of Appeal and found that Google’s use of the Java API packages was fair use. The Copyright Law provides four non-exclusive factors to be taken into account in deciding whether the use of a copyrighted work is fair use:

  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether the use was commercial in nature and whether the use was transformative;
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. The amount and materiality of the part of the copyrighted work used; and
  4. The effect of the use on the market or the value of the copyrighted work.

The Supreme Court first looked at the second factor and found that APIs were further removed than most computer programs from the “copyright core”, not least because the copyrighted features of APIs were functional and intrinsically linked to ideas that could not be protected by copyright, the value of APIs comes largely from the fact that computer programmers invest their own time in learning the API system, and also because the value is based on the learning and use of Java by Google programmers in order to use other programs that Google did not copy.

Turning to the first factor, the Court found that the purpose and character of Google’s use of APIs was transformative because Google’s programmers used APIs to develop new products for its Android smartphones and the use of the API supported the development of these new products. The Court also considered that the use of APIs by Google was undoubtedly commercial, but considered that this was not decisive for this factor, in particular in view of the “transformative role” that the use of Oracle’s APIs played in the development of the Android system.

Third, the Court examined the quantity and substantiality of the part of the copyrighted work used, and noted that Google had only copied 11,500 lines of code out of 2.86 million lines. , and noted that the amount used was “tied” to the transformation goal. usage, which weighed in favor of Fair Use.

Finally, the Supreme Court ruled that the market effects factor also weighed in favor of fair dealing in light of the uncertainty of Sun’s ability to compete with Android in the smartphone business (given that the Java Se’s primary market was laptops and desktops), that Google’s desire to use Java arose more from programmers’ familiarity with APIs than from Sun’s investment in building the APIs, and that the Applying Oracle’s copyright claim would risk harming the public by limiting the future creativity of new programs.

Based on the foregoing analysis, the Supreme Court ruled that Google’s use of Oracle’s API packages constituted fair dealing in law.


In light of the Supreme Court decision in Google v. Oracle, it is clear that not all copies of copyrighted code will be the responsibility of a developer.

The safest way for developers is to make sure they are licensed or allowed to use API packages according to the rights owner’s terms and conditions, even if this code is being used. in a different device or environment.

If the fair use defense is to be raised in connection with copying APIs, it is always advisable to seek the advice of legal counsel first.

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