Oracle v Google: APIs protected by copyright; copying for compatibility not a defense to copyright infringement

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit released an important decision yesterday in the ongoing battle between Oracle and Google over copyright protection for the Java APIs Goolge used in developing Android. In Oracle America, Inc. v Google Inc. 2014 WL 1855277 (CAFC. May 9, 2014), the Court reversed the District Court on practically every legal finding made by that court and ruled that, subject to a possible fair use defense, that Google infringed Oracle’s copyright.

The case is going to be a key precedent on the scope of copyright protection for computer programs. It addresses in a comprehensive way copyright protection for APIs and the approach U.S. courts should take in assessing key copyright doctrines including the doctrines of merger, scenes a faire, methods of operation and their applicability where questions of compatibility are in issue. In a ruling that carefully applied prior precedents and fundamental copyright doctrines, the Court made the following findings:

  • Computer programs including their literal and non-literal expression are protected by copyright. The protection extends to the structure, sequence, and organization of a program (SSO).
  • The doctrines of merger and scenes a faire are applied in assessing infringement and not copyrightability.
  • While copyright does not protect short phrases, it does protect short phrases that exhibit creativity or which result from of an original selection or arrangement of short phrases.
  • Computer programs are protectable under copyright even though they have functional elements or implement methods of operation. The protection extends to the expression in the code which implements the functionality or methods of operation.
  • The doctrines of merger and scenes a faire, which impose constraints on software developers, must be assessed from the vantage point of the creator of the alleged infringed program and not from the perspective of the alleged copier.
  • Compatibility and other external constraints must be assessed in the same way. While copying for compatibility reasons might present a factual basis for a fair use defense, it is irrelevant to considerations of copyrightability.
  • The fact that a program becomes an industry standard does not derogate from its protection under copyright.
  • There is no reason that computer programs cannot be protected under both patent and copyright law, subject to the differences in scope of protection each method of protection provides.

Based on these principles, the Court reversed the District Court and held that Google’s copying of 7,000 lines of declaring code and the overall structure, sequence, and organization of Oracle’s 37 Java API packages infringed Oracle’s copyright. It remanded the case to the District Court to consider Google’s fair use defenses. In doing so it noted that Oracle’s arguments as to why fair use could not apply were “not without force”. Google has not yet announced whether it intends to apply for leave to appeal the decision to the SCOTUS.


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