Whether federal copyright law, as currently written, is capable of adequately addressing issues presented by 21st-century technology is an open question. A jury in a Northern California court recently rendered a verdict in favor of Google in a copyright lawsuit filed nearly six years ago by the software company Oracle. Oracle America, Inc. v. Google Inc., No. 3:10-cv-03561, complaint (N.D. Cal., Aug. 12, 2010). At the time of filing, Oracle had recently acquired Sun Microsystems, creator of the Java programming language. Google had used Java to build its Android mobile device operating system, and Oracle claimed that Google had infringed its copyright in multiple software protocols known as application programming interfaces (APIs). Two central questions in the case are whether an API is subject to copyright protection, and if so, whether the Fair Use Doctrine applied to Google’s use of the APIs. The May 2016 jury verdict offers an answer for the immediate circumstances, but not necessarily anything to apply to other cases.
Copyright law protects “original works” that are “fixed in any tangible medium of expression.” 17 U.S.C. § 102(a). Computer technology was still largely in its infancy at the time of the most recent overhaul of copyright law in October 1976. At that time, Microsoft and Apple were, respectively, only 18 months and six months old. Congress amended federal copyright law again in 1980 to address copyright protection for “computer programs.” Id. at §§ 101, 117. Court decisions have affirmed that various types of software are subject to copyright protection. See, e.g., Apple Computer, Inc. v. Franklin Computer Corp., 714 F.2d 1240 (3rd Cir. 1983).
Copyright protection does not extend to mere ideas, rather than tangible expressions of those ideas, nor does it apply to a “procedure, process, [or] system” that is separate from a work of authorship. 17 U.S.C. § 102(b). Some software does not meet the federal standard for copyright protection, but it might be eligible for patent protection as a “new and useful process.” 35 U.S.C. § 101. Even if software is protected by copyright, a particular use might not constitute infringement under the Fair Use Doctrine. 17 U.S.C. § 107.
An API is a set of instructions that allows different applications or programs to interact. They are an integral part of countless digital technologies. Google copied the basic framework of the Java APIs, such as the file names, but it changed most of their content. Oracle claimed that Google violated their copyright in 37 Java APIs.
A judge ruled in 2012 that the APIs are not copyrightable, partly based on the lack of copyright protection for processes. “When there is only one way to express an idea or function,” the court ruled, “then everyone is free to do so and no one can monopolize that expression.” 872 F.Supp.2d 974, 976 (N.D. Cal. 2012). The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, however, reversed this ruling and remanded the case. 750 F.3d 1339 (Fed. Cir. 2014).
A new jury trial took place in May 2016, and the jury ruled in Google’s favor on the question of whether Fair Use protected its use of the APIs. This suggests that APIs are protected by copyright, but other businesses may use them in certain circumstances.
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