After nearly a decade, a copyright infringement dispute between Google and Oracle has finally found some clarity. In early April 2021, the Supreme Court ruled that Google’s use of certain Oracle application programming interfaces (APIs) qualified as fair use under the Copyright Act. Although the Court did not determine whether APIs themselves are copyrightable, this ruling solidifies this common practice throughout the software development industry. Here are a few highlights from the Google LLC vs. Oracle America, Inc. case and what this ruling could mean for the future of copyright law.
Copyright and Software Development
When a creator makes an original work of authorship, they receive “exclusive rights granted by law to copyright owners for protection of their work.” Original works of authorship include literary works, artistic pieces, sound recordings, architectural works, and computer programs. Essentially, an original work must involve some degree of creativity to be considered copyrightable — though as a rule the amount of creativity required is minimal because courts don’t want to wade into fights over what is “creative enough.” Still, this means that something like a word or short phrase can’t be copyrighted because it isn’t the product of even the minimally required creativity. Creating new computer programs typically does call for some level of creativity, so copyright protections are often granted to their authors.
APIs Involve Little to No Creative Expression
APIs function like building blocks to help programmers develop their applications. These small snippets of code enable developers to build new applications and interfaces for consumers. When examining the core of this case, the Court determined that Google’s use of the APIs was fair use because Google copied “only what was needed to allow users to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program.” The Court found that allowing Oracle to enforce its copyright claim could make Oracle a gatekeeper over these important codes needed to further creative endeavors throughout the digital world.
The Future of Copyright Law in Minnesota and Beyond
In their 6-2 ruling, the Supreme Court found APIs differ from other computer code in that they require almost no creative expression and are simply tools to help developers further their creative work. Therefore, the Court ruled, Google’s use of the APIs in question fell under the fair use doctrine. Although APIs have already been used, shared, and borrowed throughout the industry, this ruling affirms this longstanding practice. It’s important to note that the ruling applies to this particular case, as the Court declined to explore the more fundamental issue of whether APIs are copyrightable. As the digital landscape continues to evolve, other copyright questions and determinations will naturally arise.
If you’re facing a copyright issue in Minneapolis or St. Paul, reach out to Rubric Legal LLC at (612) 465-0074 to discuss your situation with a trusted and friendly IP law attorney today.