Facilitating the Spread of Knowledge and Innovation in Professional Software Development

Write for InfoQ


Choose your language

InfoQ Homepage News Supreme Court Rules Google's Use of Java API Was Fair Use

Supreme Court Rules Google's Use of Java API Was Fair Use

This item in japanese

The Supreme Court of the United States of America has declared that Google's use of the Java API was fair use in a decision handed down today. This final case is likely to be the end of a decade's worth of saga since Oracle filed against Google that their copying of the Java API for use in their Android operating system was not fair use. The case was heard in October 2020, but the ruling has been handed down today, April 5th, 2021.

Google used a subset of the Java API to create the Android platform, giving developers a familiar API surface to program against to give a boost to their environment at the time. Although no code itself was copied from the Open JDK (which is licensed under the GPL) Oracle had argued that its definition of the API was protected by copyright, and therefore that Google was at fault for copying the definitions even if it did not copy the source code directly.

The first case was brought before the lower court on 13th August, 2010, and lasted through until 31st May, 2012, when the jury ruled that no patent infringement had been found and in which the judge ruled that APIs were not copyrightable. Oracle appealed, and ruled that the overall API was copyrightable due to its combination together into a larger work, but referred the case to a retrial to determine whether this was fair use.

The second case was brought before the district court on 9th May, 2016, which found on 26th May, 2016 that it was covered by fair use, which Oracle appealed. This appeal case was ruled on 27th March, 2018 that Google's use of the API was not fair use, and that it should be referred back to the case to determine damages. Google appealed this ruling, and a case was set up for 24th March, 2020 – although due to the pandemic, was not heard until 7th October, 2020.

The final result of this decade's challenge was that the API used was indeed fair use:

In reviewing that decision, we assume for argument's sake, that the material was copyrightable. But we hold that the copying here at issue nevertheless constituted a fair use. Hence, Google's copying did not violate the copyright law.

Since the ruling was made assuming that the material was copyrightable, it does not say whether or not it agreed with the decision that the API itself is copyrightable or not. However, it does rule that even if the API itself was copyrightable, then reimplementing that API is fair use, and so does not constitute a copyright infringement.

Held: Google's copying of the Java SE API, which included only those lines of code that were needed to allow programmers to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program, was a fair use of that material as a matter of law.


Rate this Article