The Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments in Google v. Oracle as the decade-long dispute between tech giants finally reached the Apex Court after multiple trials and delay. At the heart of this copyright litigation which was initiated in 2010, is the copyrightability of application programming interfaces (APIs), which are intermediary software that ensure interoperability by allowing communication between programs. Claiming copyright in Java APIs, Oracle sued Google for $9 billion for copying verbatim 11,500 lines of declaring code from Oracle’s Java API packages for use in its Android Operating System. Reversing the District Court verdict, the Federal Circuit Court in 2018 ruled in favour of Oracle stating that Google’s use of code from 37 Java API packages was not covered under the fair use doctrine. Subsequently, Google approached the Supreme Court to review the aforesaid decision resulting in the case Google LLC v. Oracle America, INC. (No. 18-956).
Google primarily argued that the declaring code cannot be copyright protected as it is functional in nature, thereby invoking the merger doctrine. It was contended that since Oracle has copyright but not a patent in the Java SE code, it is the public and not Oracle that has the right to Java SE’s functionality or method of operation [Section 102(b)]. However, the argument that Google could not have made Android accessible to Java developers without using Oracle’s exact declaration code was met with resistance as Chief Justice Roberts stated that a license can be obtained if there is no substitute to the declaration code. Oracle, in its arguments, added that major companies like IBM and SAP were paying for such licenses. Furthermore, Justice Gorsuch also noted that competitors like Apple and Microsoft that have successfully developed similar platforms without copying any code.
Oracle, on the other hand, contended that declaring code cannot be distinguished from implementing code and Google’s use was not transformative use as the code copied in verbatim serves the same purpose and communicates the same thing, albeit in context of a smartphone. In response to Google’s concerns on impediment to innovation in the software industry, Oracle stated that industry rose to dominance owing to copyright protection, which incentivizes investment in the creation of high-quality code, and it is unlicensed copying that will kill software innovation.
The decision in this matter is of immense significance. In addition to the billions at stake, the case holds the potential to be a landmark judgment in the digital era that shapes the future of the software industry.
Reported by Priyanshi Rastogi, Student Ambassador