With the software copyright case Google LLC, v. Oracle America, Inc. now being decided by the Supreme Court after hearing oral arguments on October 7, 2020, software developers and the general public may wonder about the potential impact a decision in the case may have on the tech industry. At stake for the parties are the copyright protections afforded to Oracle’s application programing interface (API) previously used by Google to provide the functionality of Google’s highly popular Android mobile operating system installed on billions of mobile devices worldwide. Without a balanced ruling, an uncertain road could lie ahead for the software industry, with the potential to impact innovation and consumers for years to come.
An API is a set of tools used by software developers for accessing and using predefined software functions when building software applications. Software development platforms provide APIs along with collections of various software functions in libraries to software developers for use in the development process.
While the software development industry has long considered software for performing various functions to be copyright-protectable due to the wide variety of ways in which those functions can be expressed differently and uniquely by the author of the software code, developers have traditionally taken the position that copyright protections did not extend to the API counterparts of such software, due to the functional nature of API code and the limited number of options for expressing the code to perform those functions.
In the case at hand, Google wanted to enhance its Android mobile operating system to include Oracle’s Java Standard Edition libraries which are widely used by software developers around the world. Google initially negotiated with Oracle to license the software. However, when licensing talks failed, Google created its own version of Oracle’s Java Standard Edition libraries. In doing so, Google copied a core part of Oracle’s API code (i.e. the interface to access functions in the libraries). Oracle sued Google for copyright infringement. After a series of rulings from the District Court for the Northern District of California and the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, Google was ultimately found to have infringed Oracle’s API copyright.
The case is now before the Supreme Court of the United States. The questions presented include: (1) whether APIs are copyrightable under 17 U.S.C. §102, and (2) whether Google’s use of Oracle’s API was permissible under the Fair-Use exception 17 U.S.C. §107 of copyright law.
The general implications of a ruling in favor of Oracle may also have significant commercial impact. Prior to the dispute between Google and Oracle, APIs were widely shared by developers to provide interoperability between different platforms. This sharing has helped the application software industry and mobile device industry achieve significant innovation and growth over the past 10 years. A ruling in favor of Oracle could result in opportunistic API developers holding other software innovators hostage in licensing negotiations for use of their API. On one hand, if software innovators refuse to agree to the API license, they will have to develop their own API, which is time consuming and expensive. This may be harmful to smaller startup companies. In addition, if every developer has to develop its own unique API, systems may lose interoperability with one another. This may ultimately slow down the software development and innovation that have contributed to the success of the mobile device and application software industries. On the other hand, if software innovators agree to an API license, they may be subject to exorbitant fees or restrictions on API use that may hurt their growth and autonomy. This may result in too much power being given to powerful developers over potential competitors, effectively producing a monopoly that could stifle innovation and competition.
A ruling in favor of Google may also have negative implications. Oracle’s API is widely relied upon, due to Java’s worldwide popularity in Oracle’s standard JDK platform, which Oracle currently licenses to Java developers worldwide. The value of the JDK license could take a hit if Oracle receives an adverse judgment, because weaker copyright protection may lead to competitors developing competing Java platforms using Oracle’s API. A ruling in favor of Google could also open the door to more copyright challenges to other features of Oracle’s JDK, further eroding Oracle’s market.
More generally, the copyrights of API software developers may be weakened across the board. Startups would benefit from free use of the significant work of industry leaders, while larger industry leaders could steal innovative works from smaller startups to further entrench their market share.
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Robert A. Esposito is an associate at RatnerPrestia where he works with clients of all sizes and experience, from consulting with inventors through application drafting and patent procurement, to obtain protection for their ideas.