We are pleased to report that Google vs. Oracle*, the landmark copyright case in the US courts about software interoperability, has been resolved favorably for open source developers. It’s been a long road to get here but it’s something the courts were always going to have to address -- is modern technology best served by the copyright maximalism that has long been promoted by the content industry or should we instead re-examine some of those assumptions to facilitate multi-company platform interoperability? The Supreme Court of the United States did not take on the full scope of the question but did provide some very helpful guidance.
This was such an important question that OSI filed an amicus curiae brief with the Supreme Court to advocate on behalf of the open source community.** We filed in support of Google because the position Oracle was taking -- that it’s a copyright infringement to use API’s even when they are being used solely to create interoperability -- would’ve been disastrous for open source. Shared APIs (application programming interfaces) are essential for interoperability and innovation.
Oracle acquired Sun in early 2010 and took over stewardship of Java. Oracle then sued Google for patent and copyright infringement over the Java code in November of 2010. The patent infringement case was quickly dismissed, leaving only the copyright complaints. This legal battle has been long and drawn out, including two trips to the Court of Appeals and two trips to the Supreme Court. In 2019 the Supreme Court agreed to hear Google’s second appeal about whether API’s are copyrightable and, if copyrightable, whether Google’s copying of the declaring code, but not the implementing code, was a “fair use” as provided for in US copyright law. On April 5th of this year, the Supreme Court sidestepped the issue of copyrightability but did rule that Google's implementation of the Java APIs for the purpose of creating the Android platform is fair use with some guidance of great help in future cases: “where Google reimplemented a user interface taking only what was needed to allow users to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program, Google’s copying of the Sun Java API was a fair use of that material as a matter of law.”
OSI is very pleased that the courts ruled in favor of fair use and provided some guidance on how to determine in what ways the open source community can continue to reimplement APIs as it has done for the last two decades. We look forward to assisting the US courts in their evolving and deepening understanding of open source norms, when new cases that affect developer communities inevitably arise.
* Both parties to this case (Google and Sun Microsystems renamed Oracle America Inc) have at some point been OSI Sponsors and in taking sides OSI considered the merits of the argument not the merits of the parties.
** For our non-lawyer friends, “Amicus curiae briefs” are filings made by a “friend of the court.” In this case it refers to information offered by a third party that has context about how the ruling will affect parties beyond the named parties.