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The Android Schism: Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc.

By Rushika M

“The fact that computer programs are primarily functional makes it difficult to apply traditional copyright concepts in that technological world.”-    Justice Breyer                                                                                                   Introduction

‘Android’ is not a concept unfamiliar to most of us. It is a software platform and an operating system that provides computer programmers with the necessary infrastructure to develop new programs and applications. Since its launch in the year 2008, its valuation has quickly multiplied into billions of dollars. While the aforementioned is common knowledge, the dispute relating to the development of Android is rarely known to most. However, the latter, being of immense significance to the tech and legal industry alike, is the keynote of this article.

Background and Facts of the Case

The programming language Java, originally developed at Sun Microsystems which was later acquired by the tech giant Oracle, is one of the most popular and widely used programming languages today. Consequently, computer programmers spend years learning the language and subsequently using it. Essentially, the platform enabled users to write programs using Java code that could be run on any desktop or laptop computer, regardless of the underlying software. This is possible through a tool called Application Programming Interface (API) which allows users to use prewritten codes in their own programs to build certain functions without requiring them to write their own codes from the scratch to perform the same functions.

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The facts of the instant case[1] are thus, as follows. When in the year 2005 Google acquired Android, Inc., it initially entered into dialogue with Sun about the possibility of licensing the entire Java platform for its new smartphone technology Android. However, the idea of Android being about an open-source platform with minimal restrictions did not gel with the interoperability policy of Sun as the same would undermine the free and open business model conceived by Google. Consequently, Google built its own platform with original codes of millions of new lines. However, wanting millions of programmers who were already familiar with Java to be able to easily work with its new Android platform, it also copied approximately 11,500 lines of code from the Java SE program that were part of the API tool.

Subsequently, upon acquiring Sun Microsystems, Oracle brought a suit against Google for copyright infringement and hence the present dispute arose.

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In the first instance, the District Court ruled in favour of Google while deciding that the code was not the kind of creation to which the protections of copyright law were extended. In the second instance on appeal, the Federal Court ruled in favour of Oracle, finding that the code was indeed copyrightable and Google’s use was more than required, and hence could not be treated as fair use. Consequently, Google filed a petition for certiorari before the Supreme Court of the United States in respect of which the hon’ble court has recently rendered its decision.

In the instant case, two questions were presented before the Hon’ble Court.

  • Whether the code in respect of which infringement was alleged was copyrightable?
  • Whether Google’s use of such code was saved by the defense of ‘fair use’?

Judgement of the Supreme Court

As previously mentioned, Google’s petition posed two important questions before the hon’ble court. In respect of the first question, the court was of the opinion that given the rapidly changing technological, economic, and business-related circumstances, it must not answer more than was necessary to resolve the dispute. Therefore, for arguments sake, it decided to assume that the entire Sun Java API fell within the definition of that which could be copyrighted. Instead, it decided to focus on the second question posed before it.

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In respect of the second question, i.e., whether Google was entitled to the defense of fair use, the court applied the considerations as laid down in leading cases such as Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc.[2] and the statutory factors as provided under the Copyright Act.[3] In doing so, its decision was based on the following four parameters:

  • The nature of the copyrighted work;
  • The purpose and character of the use;
  • The amount and substantiality of the portion used;
  • Market effects.

With regards to the first parameter, the court found that the nature of the copyrighted work pointed towards fair use for two notable reasons, First, Google wrote its own programs to perform each task that its API would call up. Second, it recognized that some works were closer to the core of copyright than others and found that Java’s declaring code, if copyrightable, was further from copyright than most computer programs.

Answering in respect of the second parameter, the court was of the view that Google’s use of the copyrighted work was not only consistent with the constitutional objective of copyright law, i.e., creative “progress”, but was also transformative in nature and hence, on this issue too, the court found in favour of fair use by Google.

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On the third issue of the amount and substantiality of the portion used, it discussed two possibilities: (i) that the use of 11,500 lines, i.e., 37 packages may be prima facie substantial, (ii) that if millions of lines of Java code were considered, the use was merely 0.4% of Java’s code. Further, it recalled the judgments wherein the court held that it was not the quantity of copyrighted material used but rather the quality that must be considered. If the portion used was small, but nonetheless formed the heart of the work, then it would amount to an infringement. The Supreme Court hence considered whether it was necessary for Google to use all the codes that it had or was the use excessive. It found that such use was indeed necessary to accomplish Google’s objective and hence was ‘substantially’ fair use.

Finally, deciding on the fourth parameter, the court considered the uncertain nature of Sun’s ability to compete in Android’s marketplace, the sources of its loss of revenue, and the risk of creativity-related harms to the public, and decided that the parameter of ‘market effects’ also weighed in favour of fair use.

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Hence, in light of the abovementioned findings, the court concluded as follows:

“We reach the conclusion that in this case, where Google reimplemented a user interface, taking only what was needed to allow users to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program, Google’s copying of the Sun Java API was a fair use of that material as a matter of law.”

Analysis and Conclusion

Google and Oracle’s dispute has been a long-standing one. Many interested parties in the technological industry and the legal fraternity have keenly awaited this judgement that could quite drastically alter the course of copyright jurisprudence.

The decision of the Supreme Court in the instant case, appears at the outset, to be fair and well-reasoned. Considering the lack of technical knowledge of the judiciary, especially in respect of recent and continually evolving technologies and software, the judgement clearly lays out sound explanations in deciding on various parameters. However, a striking observation from the judgement is the conspicuous distinction drawn between computer programs and traditional copyrightable concepts. This distinction could manifest as a dangerous precedent for copyright protections and could possibly even dilute them to a great extent. Further, although the judgement appears to be favourable to various software and computer programmers today, this distinction treating computer programs differently could subsequently prove to be disadvantageous to these very programmers.

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In conclusion, it is stated that at present, the anticipated impact of the instant judgement is based merely on assumptions and conjecture. The denouement of this judgment however, will only be known as courts decide further disputes on similar issues while treating the judgment in the case of Google LLC v. Oracle America,[4] Inc. as precedent.

[1] Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc., MANU/USSC/0003/2021.

[2] Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., 510 U.S. 569 (1994).

[3] Copyright Law of the United States of 2020, 17 U.S.C., §107,

[4] Supra, 1.