Google v. Oracle II - Java API Protected by Copyright

Author: Dipl-Jur. Dennis G. Jansen, LL.M. (Berkeley)

In Oracle America, Inc. v. Google Inc., the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held the relevant Java API is protected by copyright. The court decided that Oracle can rely on copyright protection in the structure, sequence of organization of the API packages which belong to Java. It has overturned the district court’s decision that the purely declaring Java source (i.e. the API itself) is not protected by copyright under the merger and short phrases doctrines.

The court of appeals distinguished the Lotus case, effectively distinguishing between the unprotectable graphical interface for users to interact with a running program in Lotus and the textual interface which programmers use to interact with other software in Oracle, which it holds protectable. The Lotus decision had been before the Supreme Court, which was split on overturning the decision - thus the case remained good law.

The court of appeals further confirmed the district court in the determination that the scenes a faire doctrine does not apply to the benefit of Google. Finally, it finds interoperability to be irrelevant to the copyrightability of the API, but relevant to a possible fair use defense of Google. It leaves the determination of the fair use defense to the district court. The case sent back to the district court for further fact finding and a fair use determination. 

The district court was noted and applauded for its close analysis of difficult and important technical issues. The court of appeals does not delve deeply into issues of programming languages and APIs. At a high level of abstraction and relying on a different interpretation of the law it overturns the district court’s decision. The amici curiae seem to have had little impact, as did the crucial matter of interoperability. The latter is explicitly exempted from all analyses except of the fair use defense. The outcome of a fair use analysis by the district court is everything but clear at this time. There had been a hung jury on the fair use defense in the district court's trial.

In a similar case, the European Court of Justice in SAS Institute Inc. v. World Programming Ltd recently decided that APIs could be recreated for interoperability reasons without the need for a license. Notably, a fair use defense is absent from European copyright law. Article 1 of EU directive 2009/24/EC - "Ideas and principles which underlie any element of a computer program, including those which underlie its interfaces, are not protected by copyright under this Directive." - seems to assume the existence of some form of copyright protection for an API as well. And a part of the ECJ's analysis does indeed remind of a fair use analysis.