BY: Maya Valliath
Maya Valliath is a sophomore in the College studying mathematics and political economy. She is currently an assistant editor for the Georgetown University Undergraduate Law Review.
On October 7, 2020, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for a case that has been in the making for over a decade. In 2005, after Google’s negotiations with Sun Microsystems, an American software company, to use its Java API in its Android platform fell through, Google proceeded to use Java’s API in its platform without a license. When Oracle acquired Sun Microsystems in 2010, Oracle sued Google for copyright infringement and years of appeals have ensued.
The case heard before the Supreme Court in October sought to settle whether or not the use of Java’s API fell under the exclusive rights of Oracle and whether copyright law protected “a software interface” as a whole.
A central theme of the hearing was addressing whether or not the ubiquity of Java’s API conferred fair use rights. Thomas C. Goldstein, representing Google, relied on Section 102(b) of US Code law, which states:
In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.
Goldstein essentially argued that the Java API is a non-creative method of operation that can be used to make creative products, and therefore Oracle does not have the right to control who expresses its API. The 1880 Baker v. Selden case, which crystalized the idea-expression dichotomy in copyright law, was also heavily referenced in the hearing:
The copyright protection for a book explaining an art or system extends only to the author’s unique explanation of it and does not prevent others from using the system or the forms incidentally used.
By framing Oracle’s Java API as a method of operating, Goldstein argued that Oracle does not have the exclusive right to the use of its API. Justices likened the use of the API to using a QWERTY keyboard; something that if its expression was protected by copyright, would have detrimental consequences for the consumers of several industries and generally hamper productivity and innovation.
Oracle’s representation, E. Joshua Rosenkranz, outlined two legal principles to argue that Google’s use of the Java API did not constitute fair use. Rosenkranz first stated:
Congress defined literary work to include software and granted copyright protection as long as the code is original. Google conceded Oracle’s code is original. That’s the end of the question.
Rosenkranz went on to argue that Google’s use of the Java API in its own Android software served the exact same purpose that it did in Java. Rosenkranz also made sure to point out that other companies have paid millions of dollars to license the use of Oracle’s Java API. Echoing Justice Alito, he also made clear that major competitors of Google’s, such as Apple, do not use the Java API and have invested billions of dollars to create their own original software, emphasizing that software development as a whole does not rely on Oracle’s Java API. He argued that by granting Google fair use rights because the API was ubiquitous in the software industry, and consequently denying Oracle licensing rights, Oracle was being punished for its innovation and brilliance. Following up on the QWERTY metaphor, Rosenkranz articulated that the burden of innovation would not fall on consumers, a worry of the Justices, but rather on “independent economic actors.” In response to Goldstein’s comment that the Java API was uncreative, Rosenkranz argued that the complexity of the API made it so that it was inherently creative.
Implications of the Upcoming Decision
As the software industry eagerly awaits the SCOTUS outcome, two important factors hang in the balance. It boils down to an almost principal economic problem: how does the government simultaneously lower barriers to entry for innovation while also incentivizing it? On one hand, Google argued several times that siding with Oracle would stifle productivity and innovation in the software industry, forcing developers to reinvent the wheel. On the other hand, Oracle argued that by making its Java API free to use without licensing rights and copyright protections, it would disincentivize the creation of better or newer technologies because their creation would no longer be profitable.
Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc.: The Supreme Court Considers the “Copyright Lawsuit of the Decade”, Harvard Journal of Law & Technology (2020), https://jolt.law.harvard.edu/digest/google-llc-v-oracle-america-inc-the-supreme-court-considers-the-copyright-lawsuit-of-the-decade (last visited Jan 4, 2021).
 Baker v. Selden, 101 U.S. 99, 25 L. Ed. 841, 1879 U.S. LEXIS 1888, 11 Otto 99 (U.S. Jan. 19, 1880).