Google has beaten Oracle in the lawsuit regarding the most important software of the last decade. A judgment of the Supreme of the United States that establishes the bases on what is considered “fair use” of someone else’s code and how copyright affects software.
The court explains that Google used about 11,500 lines of Oracle’s Java code for the creation of Android, but that it was a fair use and therefore Oracle is not entitled to receive compensation. After more than 10 years, the highest judicial authority in the United States has concluded in favor of Google.
These are the arguments put forward and the consequences it will have for software developers and companies. A great news for the tech industry that receives the support of the justice when it comes to reimplementing APIs and taking advantage of the code of others to create new programs.
Why do you think Google did “fair use”?
Microsoft, Mozilla, the Internet Association, IBM, Reddit or the Electronic Frontier Foundation supported Google in this lawsuit. Not surprisingly, Oracle’s motivation was primarily financial. Finally, the US Supreme Court has sided with Google justifying the use of 0.4% of Java code for creating Android. A code that was “transformed” into something completely new.
Google v Oracle rejects Federal Circuit’s crabbed interpretation of fair use. Ask yourself why so many copyright industry groups supported Oracle on the fair use issue. https://t.co/BHQRIjovw0
— Pamela Samuelson (@PamelaSamuelson) April 5, 2021
In the center is the debate on fair use or ‘fair use’. Whether the lines of code used have served an additional purpose to the original or everything is “atrocious plagiarism”, as defended by Oracle, who argued that the “structure, sequence and organization” of the code used was identical.
Google’s use of Java code is covered by “fair use” as it was necessary for interoperability and because the Supreme Court considers that copyright cannot be a reason to “limit creative progress.”
For Google, the ruling is “a victory for consumers, interoperability and computing.” A vision that coincides with that of organizations such as ‘The Internet Archive’, who classify the decision as “a good day for the open Web.” “The Court has been clear: copyright cannot be used to harm the public interest“explains Brewster Kahle, founder of Archive.org.
It’s not often that I cheer on Google in legal matters, but hallelujah for this verdict. Making APIs copyrightable would have been a disaster. But also, what a disaster for the US legal system that this took OVER A DECADE to resolve. Original suit filed in August, 2010! https://t.co/0H0TRAhK2M
– DHH (@dhh) April 5, 2021
In the resolution, the US Supreme Court notes that copyright law is not only to protect innovations, but also, in a broader sense, to “stimulate creative progressThis is how the Court describes the role adopted by ‘fair use’:
“Fair use can play an important role in determining the legal scope of a computer program’s copyright. It can help distinguish between technologies. It can distinguish between expressive and functional characteristics of code when those characteristics are mixed. It can focus on the legitimate need to provide incentives to produce copyrighted material while examining the extent to which additional protection creates unrelated or illegitimate harm in other markets or for other product development. “
In the case of Google, the deliberate use of Java code served to offer a new tool to programmers. As the judges describe, Google’s purpose was “to allow programmers to work in a different computing environment without discarding a part of a familiar programming language.” That is, the interoperability. A factor protected by “fair use”.
A huge victory for Google and software developers
Many expected that the Court’s decision would apply to the specific case of Google and Oracle, but in practice it implies a broader resolution on the fair use of the software. Applicable not only to Java and Android, but to the use that many small developers make of the code and APIs of other companies.
“Otherwise, it would have created a very dangerous precedent.”
Sergio Carrasco, Icaib lawyer and telecommunications expert, explains that “it is very good news, otherwise, as some lower court judges believed, it could create a very dangerous precedent.” In this important resolution it has been concluded that Google used the strictly necessary Java code, which does not violate intellectual property and is considered fair use.
Just like we have the OpenGL or Vulkan API, Google’s implementation uses Java calls for interoperability with Android. A concrete example but that, according to Carrasco, opens the door for developers to reinvent these calls without the developer saying something. If the use is strictly necessary for their use, they will have the right to reuse them without fear of a request for financial compensation..
Charles Duan, director of technology policy at the R Street Institute, explains on social media that the judges understand the re-implementation of APIs as fair use as a matter of law, which means it applies to all APIs.
Wow–SCOTUS doesn’t just rule in favor of Google in @googlevoracle, but says that API reimplementation is fair use as a matter of law, meaning that the decision applies to all APIs pic.twitter.com/AwRBGtZ5Pp
— Charles Duan (@charles_duan) April 5, 2021
Among the various arguments put forward by Judge Breyer is the idea of ”creating new products”, as well as the “substantiality of the amount used”. The latter referred to the fact that only 0.4% of the Java code was used and what was “strictly necessary”.
The ruling is very important for the software world since it lists the ‘fair use’ decision as a matter of law, which means encouraging the application of this criterion to the rest of the APIs and equivalent cases.
Finally there is the economic aspect. Oracle argues that Google has stolen Java and its platform has not stopped growing, but the court understands fair use as a counterpart of copyright at the level of promoting competitiveness. Copyright could limit the use of creativity and This ‘fair use’ is used as the tool to promote competition.
For David maeztu, a 451Legal lawyer specializing in Internet Law, the ruling “opens the way for interoperability to be recognized as an end that justifies use, even if that implies direct copying of code.”
“That the APIs are protectable by copyright is an open door to a very great risk. Google has won by considering that the code copy it made can be adjusted to ‘fair use’, but other uses of APIs may not be considered this way“, explains Maeztu, in what he considers” a victory “, but” dangerous “.
In the Google vs. Oracle case, the judges have taken into account interoperability, leveraging knowledge, and that Google’s work with Android has ultimately positively contributed to Java’s position. A lack of prejudice to Java that has been taken into account to justify fair use.
Does not apply in Europe, but with global influence
Each country has its own legislation and the United States is not the same as the rest. In this case, it should be noted that in the European Union there is no ‘fair use’ as such. Experts point out that both Google and Oracle would have approached the trial differently and, predictably, the debate would have been whether these lines of code are subject to Intellectual Property laws or not.
The Supreme Court of the United States has not gone into whether or not the code can actually be copyrighted. It does make a brief analysis, but since it determines that it is a “fair use”, its use is justified and is not subject to compensation.
In Europe, the judges could determine that there is no infringement of intellectual property or, on the contrary, they could have understood that it did and therefore Oracle would have been compensated. Although, the jurisprudence of the CURIA in these cases usually refers to the judgment SAS Institute against World Programming Limited, of 2012. In that case it was established that the code may have copyright, but not the functional characteristics, such as the formats of data or function names. Following the conclusions of that case, in the European Union the case of Google against Oracle would have predictably ended much earlier.
The underlying idea is the same, but in Europe we have legislation that further specifies the limits of application and who has to abide by what rules, while in the US, judges are more “interpreters of the law”, deciding in each case what is the functionality and objective of each law. In the case of Google and Oracle, the debate has not revolved so much in whether or not copyright applies, but what is the ultimate goal of copyright.
The ruling will make the use of APIs and code more flexible without fear of compensation. Although the legislation in Europe is different, the decision of the Supreme Court may influence the position of European judges to continue adopting positions along these lines.
The issue of copyright applied to software is a delicate and complex subject. While in a pictorial work or a song it is relatively easy to find the originality of the author, in a software it is not so clear why sometimes much of the code is reuse. A very common use in API calls where what we have is a code created to generate interoperability. It is in this dilemma that Google’s ruling against Oracle is presented as so relevant for the future, since it creates a strong jurisprudence for the use of APIs.
“It is difficult to anticipate, but this sentence can cause a greater flexibility when implementing languages and using APIs. It can make certain ecosystems grow, although those who own some domains may also be more inclined to close or specify what can be done with their API, “explains Maeztu.
Within the US, developers using APIs can rest assured that they can argue that their code falls within “fair use.” In Europe, this figure is not contemplated but experts do not rule out that the position of the judges is more flexible in similar cases with the use of the code to somehow harmonize criteria.
A legal battle for the use of a small percentage of the Java code that has lasted 10 years and that finally the judges have ended up deciding in favor of free development. A sentence with which most of us come out winning.