Copyrighting APIs – Google And Oracle Battle It Out

Author:Mr Peter Bolger and Mark Adair
Profession:Mason Hayes & Curran

In May 2016, a six-year legal tussle between Google and Oracle entered its final phase when the US District Court for Northern California ruled that Google's use of 37 Oracle Java APIs in Google's Android mobile operating system was permissible as it amounts to 'fair use' under US copyright law.

Oracle's copyright infringement claim

The complex Oracle v Google litigation began in 2010. Oracle claimed that when Google was developing its Android mobile operating system, it infringed Oracle's intellectual property in proprietary Java software by, among other things, directly copying and inserting around 11,500 lines of Java code without sufficient licensing. Oracle claimed that Google's reuse of 37 of 166 packages of the Java API was an infringement of Oracle's copyright and patent rights.

Google's counter-argument was that an API is a series of instructions that allows one computer programme to interact and communicate with another computer programme. Google argued that an API is different from traditional software code as it is more functional in nature, like a street sign guiding traffic, and therefore not copyrightable.

Prior decisions

Google won the first round in 2012 when US District Court Judge, William Alsup ruled that APIs cannot be copyrighted. He went on to state "the particular elements replicated by Google were free for all to use under the [US] Copyright Act."

His decision was reversed by the Court of Appeals of the Federal Court in 2014, who ruled that the declaring code and the structure, sequence, and organization of the API packages are entitled to copyright protection. The general understanding in the industry at the time was that using another company's API is permissible where the second company re-implements the API through independently written code.

While the jury unanimously held Google to be infringing Oracle's copyright, the same jury deadlocked on the issue of whether that infringement constituted 'fair use'.

2016 'fair use' ruling

The US Supreme Court refused to review the Court of Appeals' decision on copyright infringement so the case returned to the US District Court in 2016 for a new trial that considered whether to uphold Google's last ditch defence of 'fair use' of the APIs. Under US copyright law, 'fair use' allows limited use of material without acquiring permission from the rights holder for certain specified purposes. But what actually constitutes 'fair use' is often decided on a case-by-case basis. In...

To continue reading