Google’s Use of Java Code Constituted Fair Use, Supreme Court Rules

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The Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Google in its high-profile case against Oracle.  Photo Credit: Joe Ravi

In a decision that could have a far-reaching impact on the music industry down the line, the Supreme Court has determined that Google’s copying some 11,500 lines of Oracle’s Java code constituted fair use.

The Supreme Court just recently ruled on the high-profile case, and Justices Roberts, Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh joined in Justice Breyer’s opinion. (Justice Barrett didn’t consider or decide on the matter, while Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion, which Justice Alito joined.) According to the case’s syllabus, “Google copied roughly 11,500 lines of code from” Java to enable the many programmers who’re familiar with the language to develop programs for Android.

A federal court determined that the lines of code in question were copyrightable, but a jury proceeded to find that the lifted code constituted fair use. Finally, the Federal Circuit overturned the latter ruling, “concluding that Google’s copying was not a fair use as a matter of law.” The Supreme Court, for its part, assumed “for argument’s sake that the copied lines can be copyrighted” and focused mainly on whether the usage at hand qualified as fair use.

And in doing so, the Supreme Court examined “the four guiding factors set forth in the Copyright Act’s fair use provision,” including the character/purpose of the use, the type of copyrighted work, the amount/portion of the work used, “and the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.”

“The nature of the work at issue favors fair use,” the syllabus indicates, noting that “as part of an interface, the copied lines are inherently bound together with uncopyrightable ideas (the overall organization of the API) and the creation of new creative expression (the code independently written by Google).

“Unlike many other computer programs, the value of the copied lines is in significant part derived from the investment of users (here computer programmers) who have learned the API’s system.”

The document then ties the character/purpose guiding factor to the “transformative” nature (or lack thereof) of the use – a point that’s played prominently in multiple music-industry “fair use” copyright infringement cases.

“Google copied only what was needed to allow programmers to work in a different computing environment without discarding a portion of a familiar programming language,” the syllabus continues. “Google copied approximately 11,500 lines of declaring code from the API…Those 11,500 lines, however, are only 0.4 percent of the entire API at issue, which consists of 2.86 million total lines.

“Google copied these lines not because of their creativity or beauty but because they would allow programmers to bring their skills to a new smartphone computing environment. The ‘substantiality’ factor will generally weigh in favor of fair use where, as here, the amount of copying was tethered to a valid, and transformative, purpose.

“The Court concludes that Google’s copying of the API to reimplement a user interface, taking only what was needed to allow users to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program, constituted a fair use of that material as a matter of law,” concludes the syllabus.

Digging briefly into Justice Breyer’s opinion, fair use is a “flexible” concept, and “courts must apply it in light of the sometimes conflicting aims of copyright law, and that its application may well vary depending upon context.

“And just as fair use takes account of the market in which scripts and paintings are bought and sold, so too must it consider the realities of how technological works are created and disseminated. We do not believe that an approach close to ‘all or nothing’ would be faithful to the Copyright Act’s overall design.

“We reach the conclusion that in this case, 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.”