Clarity in the field of Copyright Protection of API: Case Study of Google LLC v. Oracle America Inc.
In July 2005 Google bought Android and decided to create a new software platform for mobile devices and it was successfully released in September 2008 as Android OS.
In 2010 the decade long dispute started when Oracle claimed that Google had copied about 11,500 lines of code from the Java SE program of Sun Microsystem (Sun Microsystem was acquired by Oracle in April 2009) in creating the famous Android OS, the lines of code which were stolen were the part of a tool called as Application Programming Interface (API).
WHAT IS AN API?
It is the basic block of inter-operability of different software. It helps different software communicate and interact with one another. For layman in software development, the following illustration can help anyone to understand the concept with ease-
When a bus traveler tries to book a bus seat online and the travel options assembling website (Example – Redbus, Makemytrip) sends a request for bus information to a bus company API (Example – Maharashtra State Road Transport (MSRT) API), the API then would send the Bus details back to the website which requested the particular information for displaying it. The Modern API over the years has been described as a quiet generic connectivity interface of an application but what actually makes them of ultimate value and extremely useful are as follow –
- Modern API are treated like a product more than a chunk of code they are specifically designed for mobile developers.
- API are now much more standardised and as a result they have much stronger security and governance and they can be managed and monitored as per requirement of performance,
ISSUES FACED BY THE COURT
The main issues were as follows-
1. Whether the Java API source code was protected by copyright. Or in general, terms, whether the copyright protection extended to a software interface?
In a majority, the SCOTUS Justices did not rule on the copyrightability of Java API as opposed to the dissent given by Justice Thomas in the previous Judgement assuming that API was copyrightable for the sake of argument.
2. Whether Google Inc.’s usage of a software interface in the context of the creation of a novel computer program constituted fair use.
The SCOTUS ruled that Google’s use of sun microsystems source code for the purpose of creating its Android Platform was a “fair use” under the copyrightable law.
In April 2021, the Supreme Court ruled in a 6–2 decision that Google’s use of the Java APIs fell within the four factors of fair use, bypassing the question of the copyrightability of the APIs. The decision reversed the Federal Circuit ruling and remanded the case for further review.
RELEVANCE OF THIS JUDGMENT IN INDIAN COPYRIGHT LAWS
The SCOTUS assumed the copyrightability of the declaring code (It is the code in the API that identifies the prewritten software components provided by the API and tells the API how to communicate with other programs) in this specific case of google vs oracle.
BUT it decided not to interfere with the finding of the Federal Court that the declaring code was indeed “Copyrightable”. This decision of SCOTUS already had a significant impact on the issues regarding the copyrightability of API under Indian Copyright Laws.
According to the Indian copyright Act 1975 (hereafter referred to as Act), the doctrine of fair use under section 107 of the Act is very distinct from the doctrine of fair dealing under section 52 (1)(a) of the Act.
As the rule mentioned above excludes computer applications, the fair dealing exception in the Act does not apply to facts of google vs oracle case, even though 52 (1)(ab) has a separate exception for interoperability But even this section of the act is not relevant in the case of Google vs oracle as google did not copy the 11,500 lines of code from oracle for the purpose of interoperability. And sub-clause (aa) is also not applicable.
So as mentioned above not many exceptions provided in the section52(1) of the act seem to apply to the case of Google and oracle and this extent as observed the decision of SCOTUS does not seem to have a deep impact on the legal system of India concerning copyright law.
THE IMPLICATION OF THIS JUDGMENT ON THE DEVELOPER COMMUNITY
If oracle would have won, Oracles of the current technology world would have started charging for lines of codes on which the API exists the developer community would have been perplexed whether to start from scratch or try to use widely available tools.
But in reality, as google won and they will benefit from smaller players, Although we can’t argue that Google innovations are also helpful towards benefiting society, and developers are able to use the platform of android to build potentially million dollars’ worth applications.
This judgment has loosened the laws surrounding the copyright ability of software which might be a great win for software developers as now they do not have to get a license for their work and as developers build software by using other’s work and implementing new lines of codes things would become interoperable.
We can say that innovation happens by standing on each other’s shoulders and the idea of fair use is beneficial for everyone in the industry. The decision of SCOTUS on fair use was far from equitable as per the doctrine of equitable Although perhaps in future this dissent might trigger a overruling of the judgement or a reasonable alternative view will be considered.
Thus, we can conclude that this decision was a humongous victory for all programmers, developers, and other users who were determined to create a platform with their acquired knowledge and combined experience with software interfaces. In the words of Justice Clerence Thomas – This will be the copyright case of the entire century which decided the future of software developers and their fate.
Author’s Name: Rugved Mahamuni (Pune University, Pune)
 John Callaham, Google made its best acquisition nearly 16 years ago: Can you guess what it was?, Android Authority (June 30, 2021, 9:45 PM), https://www.androidauthority.com/google-android-acquisition-884194/.