The US Supreme Court ruled 6-2 in favor of Google on Monday in Google v. Oracle, holding that Google’s use of Oracle’s Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) was fair use.
Oracle sued Google for copyright infringement after Google used portions of Oracle’s Java API code in the development of their Android operating system. APIs allow for programs to reference pre-written snippets of code to accomplish common tasks. In developing Android, Google used approximately 11,500 lines of Oracle’s code.
The original case was heard in the Northern District of California, where the trial court judge ruled that APIs could not be subject to copyright because they generally set out the only way that a particular task, such as combining two strings or displaying text, could be accomplished in a programming language.
However, this was reversed in 2014, when an appellate judge for the Federal Circuit ruled that APIs could be protected with copyright, but that Google’s use of the code could be considered fair use. The Supreme Court held that Google’s use of the code was fair use under copyright law because it was a new and transformative use of the code.
The Supreme Court ruled that Google’s use of Oracle’s code constituted fair use because of the unique nature of APIs in programming, as a heavily relied upon tool that programmers use to create many different types of programs. The Supreme Court observed that APIs are inexorably bound up with uncopyrightable ideas, like the overall organization of the code. Moreover, APIs are a necessary part of any new and creative act with a programming language because programmers rely on APIs to accomplish basic and necessary tasks. Google’s use of the API was not substantially different than common programming uses, so it is likely that other technology companies will be able to rely on the fair use defense in the future.