In a narrowly drawn, yet significant decision, the Supreme Court reversed the Federal Circuit and ruled that Google LLC’s (“Google”) copying of some of the Sun Java Application Programming Interface (API) declaring code was a fair use as a matter of law, ending Oracle America Inc.’s (“Oracle”) infringement claims over Google’s use of portions of the Java API code in the Android mobile platform. (Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc., No. 18-956, 593 U.S. ___ (Apr. 5, 2021)). In reversing the 2018 Federal Circuit decision that found Google’s use of the Java API packages was not fair use, the Supreme Court, in a 6-2 decision (Justice Barrett did not take part in the case) found where Google reimplemented the Java user interface, taking only what was needed to allow outside developers to work in a new and transformative mobile smartphone program, Google’s copying of the Sun Java API was a fair use as a matter of law. This decade-long dispute had been previously dubbed “The World Series of IP cases” by the trial court judge, and like many classic series, this one culminated in a winner-take-all Game 7 at the highest court.
Oracle is one of the most notable Supreme Court decisions affecting the software and technology industry in recent memory since, perhaps, the Court’s 2010 Bilski patent opinion, its 2012 Jones decision on GPS tracking, privacy and the Fourth Amendment and its 2005 Grokster decision on copyright inducement in the peer-to-peer network context, and certainly the most notable decision implicating fair use since its well-cited 1994 Campbell decision that expounded on the nature of “transformative” use. It was no surprise that this case attracted a stack of amicus briefs from various technology companies, organizations, and academia. In the months following oral argument, it was difficult to discern how the Court would decide the case – would it be on procedural grounds based on the Federal Circuit’s standard of review of the jury verdict on fair use, on the issue of the copyrightability of the Java API packages, directly on the fair use issue, or some combination. The majority decision is a huge victory for the idea that fair use in the software context is not only a legal defense but a beneficial method to foster innovation by developing something transformative in a new environment on top of the functional building blocks that came before. One has to think hard to recall an opinion involving software and technology that referenced and applied the big picture principles of copyright – “to stimulate artistic creativity for the general public good,” as the Supreme Court once stated in a prior case – so indelibly into the fair use analysis.
The decision is also notable for the potential impact on copyright’s “transformative use test.” By considering Google’s intent for using the Java API code, the Court’s discussion of what constitutes a “transformative” use appears to diverge somewhat from recent Circuit Court holdings outside the software context. The decision may redirect the transformative use analysis going forward, or future decisions may cabin the holding to the software context.