On April 5, 2021, the Supreme Court put an end to the decade-long copyright dispute between tech giants Google and Oracle America. In a 6-2 decision authored by Justice Breyer, the Supreme Court held in Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc., 593 U.S. ___ (2021), that Google’s copying of approximately 11,500 lines of code from Oracle’s Java SE Application Programming Interface (“API”) was “fair use” and, therefore, did not constitute copyright infringement. The Court’s decision will undoubtedly have ramifications for decades to come on the “fair use” doctrine in commercial works, and in particular in the use of computer code in commercial software.
The two questions before the Court were: (1) whether the Java SE code that Google copied was entitled to copyright protection in light of the Copyright Act’s inclusion of computer programs as copyrightable material and its prohibition on protection for “processes” and “methods of operation,” and (2) assuming the code was copyrightable, whether Google’s use qualified as “fair use.” Recognizing that “a holding for Google on either question presented would dispense with Oracle’s copyright claims,” the Court only answered the fair use inquiry. In view of “the rapidly changing technological, economic, and business-related circumstances,” the Court exercised judicial restraint by stating it would “not answer more than is necessary to resolve the parties’ dispute.” Although Google could have prevailed had the Court found that the API was not copyrightable, the Court saved that question for another day and assumed for the sake of argument that it was.
Justice Breyer, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh, focused on the fair use defense by analyzing each of the four statutory factors enumerated in 17 U.S.C. § 107: (1) the purpose and character of the use; (2) the nature of the copyrighted work; (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and (4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work. The Court found that each factor weighed in Google’s favor, thereby reversing the Federal Circuit’s decision to the contrary.
Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Alito, dissented, stating that the majority erred by not answering the question of copyrightability and that the fair use factors actually favored Oracle. The dissent criticized the majority’s approach of sidestepping the question of whether the API was copyrightable, arguing that the majority’s failure to address the issue distorted its fair use analysis and ultimately rendered the code as “less worthy of protection.”
The Court’s decision sets an important precedent as it has the potential to significantly expand the fair use doctrine, even in non-computer software contexts. If you are an author, musician, programmer, or other content creator, or have been accused of copyright infringement, it is important to consult with experienced intellectual property counsel to determine how the decision impacts you.
AALRR has a dedicated group of attorneys on its Intellectual Property Team with the experience and expertise to vigorously enforce your copyrights and defend you against claims of copyright infringement. Attorneys on the Firm’s Intellectual Property Team can also assist you with registration of your copyrights with the United States Copyright Office. Contact the authors for assistance with your copyright and other intellectual property needs.
This AALRR post is intended for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon in reaching a conclusion in a particular area of law. Applicability of the legal principles discussed may differ substantially in individual situations. Receipt of this or any other AALRR publication does not create an attorney-client relationship. The Firm is not responsible for inadvertent errors that may occur in the publishing process.
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