Oracle America sued Google for patent and copyright infringement based on Google’s use of Oracle’s Java API in its Android software in the Northern District of California. The case first focused on whether the Java APIs in question were protected under copyright, which in May 2014, the Federal Circuit held that they were. The case was heard again in the Northern District of California, but this time on Google’s claims that its use was fair use. In May 2016, a jury found in favor of Google, holding that its use of Oracle’s Java API was fair use. Oracle filed a motion to challenge the verdict, which the district court denied in June 2016.
Oracle appealed to the Federal Circuit on the adverse fair use ruling and Google cross-appealed to preserve the claim that the Java APIs were not copyrightable. In March 2018, the Federal Circuit reversed the district court’s decision and remanded for a trial on damages. The Court weighed the first and fourth factor heavily in favor of Oracle, the second factor in favor of Google, and weighed the third factor as neutral. After balancing all factors, the Court found that Google’s use was not a fair use as a matter of law. The Court also denied Google’s cross appeal regarding the copyright-ability of the Java APIs at issue, holding that the Court’s previous opinion in 2014 resolved that question.
Google filed a cert petition with the Supreme Court in January 2019, asking the Court to review both Federal Circuit decisions. The Supreme Court called for the views of the Solicitor General April 29, 2019. The Solicitor General recommended the Court deny the petition, saying the Federal Circuit correctly held both that neither Section 102(b) nor the merger doctrine forecloses copyright protection and no reasonable jury could find fair use on this record and that further review was not warranted.
On November 15, 2019, the Supreme Court granted Google’s cert petition. The questions presented are:
Whether copyright protection extends to a software interface.
Whether, as the jury found, petitioner’s use of a software interface in the context of creating a new computer program constitutes fair use.
Oracle v. Google has been a closely watched case by the tech industry, as a ruling favoring Oracle could have significant effects on past and future software development, given the prolific use of APIs. Opponents of the federal court's ruling, including Google and other developers of Android-based software, have raised several concerns including the impact on interoperability, software innovation and the potential for bad actors to pick up the rights to old software and file claims against companies who built their software under what were assumed were open standards. If this ruling is allowed to stand, it is believed that companies will be forced to implement deliberately incompatible standards to protect themselves from the risk of complex litigation, moving away from the current trends in software development which have focused on improving interoperability between different services allowing apps to communicate with one another, creating more integrated platforms for end users.
Industry and legal experts had stated an Oracle victory could create a chilling effect in software development, with copyright holders using the copyright on APIs to prevent their use in developing interoperable alternatives through reverse engineering, as common in open source software development. At the same time, a judgment favoring Google's position may weaken protection for copyright for software code developers, allowing competitors with better resources to develop improved products from smaller firms, and reduce the motive for innovation within the industry.
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