Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Google’s Appeal Regarding Copyrightability of APIs

September 15, 2015 - from Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals

The Supreme Court’s decision not to hear Google’s appeal in its dispute with Oracle could have legal implications regarding the copyrightability of application programming interfaces (APIs), which are tools within a programming language designed to help programmers build software. In light of the Supreme Court’s decision not to grant certiorari, Google will have to accept the ruling of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed the copyrightability of APIs.

The dispute centered upon a particular type of source code from Oracle’s Java API known as “declaring” code – i.e., code used to name (or “declare”) elements within a software program.  As Google conceded the fact that it had copied Oracle’s source code in the course of developing the Android operating system, the Ninth Circuit only considered the question of whether the copied code was, in fact, eligible for copyright.

Google made the following arguments, each of which the court rejected:

  1. The merger doctrine bars “declaring” code from copyright protection because the function of such code has “merged” with the name assigned to it. The Ninth Circuit rejected this argument, concluding that Google could have written different code to perform the same function as the code it copied.
  2. “Declaring” code is a “system” or “method of operation” ineligible for copyright protection under Section 102(b) of the Copyright Act. The Ninth Circuit rejected this argument on the grounds that, even though the code performs a function, the “declaring” code is a specific expression of that function rather than the function itself.
  3. “Declaring” code consists entirely of short phrases, which are not eligible for copyright. The Ninth Circuit rejected this argument on the basis that short phrases can be copyrighted if used meaningfully within certain contexts.
  4. The “declaring” code of the copied packages is used so prolifically, and is so associated with the function of those packages, that it should be treated as an “idea” rather than an “expression.” The Ninth Circuit rejected this argument, reasoning that copyrightable expression does not suddenly become ineligible for copyright once that expression becomes the industry standard.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part the ruling of the District Court of Northern California. It also remanded the case to the District Court to decide the question of whether Google’s copying falls within the grounds of the “fair use” doctrine. Google had asserted that it copied in order to ease the transition for programmers switching from the Java platform to the Android platform, which Google is expected to argue constitutes fair use.

The outcome of this case will not be the end of the dispute over whether APIs are copyrightable. Should Google succeed in convincing the court that its copying fell within the fair use exception, it will still leave open the question of the exact extent to which copying of an API would constitute fair use; Google copied only the declaring code and the structure, sequence, and organization of the Oracle API.  Conversely, a ruling that Google’s copying did not constitute fair use would not preclude the possibility that the copying of other API elements might fall within the ambit of the fair use doctrine.

DisputeSoft keeps a close watch on legal developments such as the Google-Oracle case to inform our analytical approach in cases involving software copyright infringement.  If you are in need of a software copyright infringement expert, we ask that you please consider DisputeSoft.

Read the Ninth Circuit’s decision here.