Google LLC v. Oracle America Inc.

No. 18-956 - Argued October 7, 2020
At Issue

Does copyright protection extend to a software interface? If so, does the petitioner’s use of a software interface in the context of creating a new computer program constitute fair use?

  • Thomas C. Goldstein, for the petitioner
  • E. Joshua Rosenkranz, for the respondent
  • Malcolm L. Stewart, for the United States, as amicus curiae
Background and Case Commentary

Oracle (through its purchase of Sun Microsystems in 2009) owns the copyrights in the Java software platform, which is widely available on computers and other devices. Programmers who write Java apps can call on the platform to carry out various tasks, from displaying text and images on the screen to performing complex calculations.  To do so, programmers work through the Java Application Programming Interface (API), which provides thousands of functions that their programs can use.

There are two kinds of code in the Java API. One kind, called “declaring code” throughout this litigation, consists of detailed technical specifications for the Java API functions. For example, the declaring code

public static int max(int x, int y)

specifies a function named “max” that returns the greater of two integers. To use this function, a Java programmer must write a portion of their own program that exactly matches this declaring code, e.g.,

int a = java.lang.Math.max (2, 3);

When a program does so, the actual computation requested by the programmer (here, finding the greater of two integers) is carried out by the other kind of code in the Java API, the “implementing code.”

When Google developed its Android smartphone platform, it copied substantial parts of the Java API declaring code. This incorporation enabled developers who were familiar with the Java APIs to comfortably write programs for Android with relatively small modifications. Google (with some exceptions not relevant in this appeal) wrote its own implementing code.

Oracle subsequently sued Google for copyright infringement. The Copyright Act states that copyright is available in any “original work of authorship,” 17 U.S.C. § 102(a), including computer programs, but that copyright does not “extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery,” id. § 102(b).

Android is the most popular smartphone operating system in the world; it is installed on more than 2.5 billion devices. Oracle’s complaint against Google sought almost $9 billion in damages. In addition, the resolution of the API copyrightability issue could shape competition in operating systems and online services by preventing competitors from creating their own versions of successful APIs.

Throughout the argument, the justices suggested analogies to understand the nature of declaring code. Chief Justice Roberts compared it to the combination of a safe, Justice Breyer to the QWERTY keyboard layout, Justice Kagan to a proof in a mathematics class, and Justice Thomas to a football playbook. I have chosen to provide a response to Justice Thomas’s hypothetical for two reasons. First, he stated after Mr. Goldstein’s answer that Mr. Goldstein had misconstrued the question but moved on to other issues in the interests of time. Second, Justice Thomas’s football metaphor is particularly illuminating on the competition issues at the heart of copyright policy, and of the case.

Google LLC v. Oracle America Inc. on Oyez:

Key Questions from Oral Argument

Justice Thomas to Petitioner (8:36): You know, you could someone could argue, though, that, look, if a -- a team -- if a team takes your best players, a football team, that the only way that those players could actually perform at a high level is if you give that team your playbook. I don't think anybody would say that is -- is right.

James Grimmelmann: Thank you, Justice Thomas. I think that's actually a very helpful analogy for us, because it clarifies how copyright and competition relate. We are not asking Oracle to reveal to us any of the secrets in its playbook. We are just asking that players who switch teams be allowed to keep running the plays they are familiar with.

Football teams trade players all the time, and these trades are a completely accepted part of how competition works in football. Oracle has neither a copyright, nor any other kind of right, that would stop Java developers from coming to play for our team instead of for Oracle. No law prevents Java developers from developing Android apps.

We're not asking Oracle to to give us its implementing code, which is the closest analogue here to a football playbook. Instead, we’re asking this Court to hold that Oracle can't claim a copyright in those plays and stop other teams from running a screen pass just because they ran one first. An API, like a football play, may be original under section 102(a), but because it is a method of operation, it is uncopyrightable under section 102(b).

In keeping with the football analogy, our position is that Oracle may not use a literary work copyright in its playbook to control how the game of football is played. Players familiar with the Java API playbook are free to run those plays for other teams and are free to run new variations on them, too. That is what we did when we modified and extended the Java APIs and developed our own original implementations of the Android APIs. Ultimately, if this Court were to accept Oracle's position, the decision would not just prevent other teams from running similar plays, it would also prevent other teams from developing new plays, thereby inhibiting the progress of science, useful arts, and competitive athletics.