The Supreme Court determined that Google was entitled to copy roughly 11,500 lines of computer code that formed part of an application programming interface (API) for Oracle’s Java SE program. An API is a tool that allows programmers to call upon prewritten computing tasks for use in their own programs.
The potential damages in the case were massive. Oracle claimed that they exceed $8 billion. However, the Supreme Court determined that the copying of that particular API in this case constituted fair use, which is a defense to copyright infringement. The decision was issued on April 5, 2021.
An analysis of fair use involves four factors: “(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes; (2) the nature of the copyrighted work; (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and (4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work”. 17 U.S.C. § 107.
The Supreme Court found that all four factors favored fair use. The first factor favored fair use because the API code was different from most other types of code in that its “use is inherently bound together with uncopyrightable ideas (general task division and organization) and new creative expression (Android’s implementing code).”
The second factor favored fair use because, inter alia, “Google’s basic purpose was to create a different task-related system for a different computing environment (smartphones) and to create a platform—the Android platform—that would help achieve and popularize that objective.” This indicated that Google’s purpose was consistent with the creative process, which is an objective of the constitutional basis of copyright law (i.e., Article I Section 8 | Clause 8: “To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”).
The third factor favored fair use because the portion of the API only represented 0.4% of the API, in general. The fourth factor favored fair use because Google’s product did not directly compete with Oracle’s product. The Supreme Court also noted that Oracle could have benefited through Google’s use of the code in a different platform.
The Supreme Court also considered whether an API, in general, could be subject to copyright protection. However, the Court declined to establish that legal principle.