Tuesday, 06 April 2021 04:11

Win for Google as Supreme Court rules copying of Java API code was 'fair use' Featured

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Win for Google as Supreme Court rules copying of Java API code was 'fair use' Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

The US Supreme Court has come down on the side of Google in its long-running battle against Oracle, ruling on Monday that the copying of code from the Java API was a fair use of that material.

"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," Judge Stephen Breyer wrote in a 62-page judgment.

However, the court made no decision on Google's claim that APIs are not copyrightable. "To decide no more than is necessary to resolve this case, the Court assumes for argument’s sake that the copied lines can be copyrighted, and focuses on whether Google’s use of those lines was a 'fair use',” Justice Breyer said.

"To allow the millions of programmers familiar with the Java programming language to work with its new Android platform, Google copied roughly 11,500 lines of code from the Java SE program. The copied lines are part of a tool called an Application Programming Interface. An API allows programmers to call upon pre-written computing tasks for use in their own programs," he said.

"Over the course of protracted litigation, the lower courts have considered (1) whether Java SE’s owner could copyright the copied lines from the API, and (2) if so, whether Google’s copying constituted a permissible 'fair use' of that material freeing Google from copyright liability.

"In the proceedings below, the Federal Circuit held that the copied lines are copyrightable. After a jury then found for Google on fair use, the Federal Circuit reversed, concluding that Google’s copying was not a fair use as a matter of law.

"Prior to remand for a trial on damages, the Court agreed to review the Federal Circuit’s determinations as to both copyrightability and fair use."

Chief Justice John Roberts and Judges Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh supported the verdict while Judges Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented. Judge Amy Coney Barrett did not take part as she was confirmed only after the case was heard last October.

The highest court in the US agreed to hear the case in November 2019 in order to decide whether Oracle should get damages from Google for copyright infringement.

Hearings were scheduled for March 2020 but were put off due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Google's senior vice-president for Global Affairs, Kent Walker, was understandably jubilant. "Today’s Supreme Court decision in Google v Oracle is a big win for innovation, inter-operability and computing. Thanks to the country’s leading innovators, software engineers and copyright scholars for their support," he tweeted.

Oracle's executive vice-president and general counsel, Dorian Daley, said in a statement: “The Google platform just got bigger and market power greater — the barriers to entry higher and the ability to compete lower.

"They stole Java and spent a decade litigating as only a monopolist can. This behaviour is exactly why regulatory authorities around the world and in the US are examining Google’s business practices."

The case has been around since 2010 when Oracle sued Google shortly after it purchased Sun Microsystems and became the owner of Java, claiming that Google had violated its copyright and patents. Google was accused of taking more than 11,000 lines of code from Java APIs and using it in Android without any commercial agreement.

That case ended in 2012 with Google being largely the victor. The presiding judge, Justice William Alsup, ruled that APIs could not be copyrighted.

But an appeal gave Oracle what it wanted: a ruling that APIs could be copyrighted.

In a second trial that ended in May 2016, a jury found that Google's use of the Java APIs in Android was covered under fair use. As expected, Oracle was not happy with the verdict.

Oracle initiated an appeal in February 2017 having indicated after the May 2016 verdict that it would not take a backward step. In August 2016, It tried to get the verdict set aside, but was this was refused by Justice Alsup. Later the same year, the database giant filed the necessary papers to prolong the battle.

Finally, on 28 March, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit came to the conclusion that Google's use of the Java APIs was "not fair as a matter of law".

In August 2018, the US Federal Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Google's bid to have the case reheard. This meant that the decision — that Google's use of the Java APIs was "not fair as a matter of law" — would stand, and the search giant would have to fork out US$8.8 to billion to Oracle or else try to take the case to the Supreme Court – as it did.

Google then went to the Supreme Court in 2019, seeking to have it again rule on the dispute.

Reacting to the verdict, a spokesperson for open source vendor Red Hat said: "Today’s 6-2 Supreme Court decision is a win for developers and the software industry; it recognises the critical role of software interfaces to promote innovation, inter-operability, and new technologies.

"Last year, Red Hat and IBM filed a joint amicus brief in this case urging the Supreme Court to overturn the lower court decision. The issues in this case were complex and the Supreme Court is to be commended for wrestling with its decades-long history."

Thanks to CNET for links to the judgment and the reactions from both companies.


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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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