Supreme Court Rules Google’s Copying of Oracle’s Java SE API is Fair Use

Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc.
Case No. 18-956
United States Supreme Court
Decided April 5, 2021 


On April 5th, in what is generally considered a “win” for the software community at large, the United States Supreme Court decided Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc., and ruled that Google’s reuse of portions of Oracle’s Java SE API was fair use under U.S. Copyright Law.

Google copied declaring code, which is shorthand code that initiates an existing computer program. However, Google did not copy any of those computer programs (referred to as implementing code) from the Sun Java API. Rather, Google rewrote Java’s implementing code to be more efficient for mobile devices.

Notably, this is the most comprehensive Supreme Court case to date dealing with fair use as it pertains to computer software. In its decision, the Court started off by addressing the second fair use factor, Nature of the Copyrighted Work. The Court found that declaring code is primarily organizational and inextricably bound up with implementing code that is copyrightable, but was not copied by Google. This weighed in favor of fair use. Next, the Court analyzed the first fair use factor, Purpose and Character of the Use. It found that because Google rewrote the implementing code in order to create new products, the use was transformative, which favors fair use. The Court then analyzed the third fair use factor, Amount and Substantiality of the Portion Used. It found that although Google copied 11,500 lines of code, Google also rewrote millions of lines of code out of the Java package that is itself millions of lines of code. Because this amount of copying was for a transformative purpose, it also favors fair use. Finally, the Court analyzed the fourth fair use factor, Market Effects. It found it was unlikely that Sun could successfully enter the smartphone market, and that Google’s Android mobile operating system using portions of Sun’s Java API is in a different market than Sun’s Java for desktops and laptops. This analysis of the market effects also weighed in favor of fair use.

While the software at issue in this case was not video game software itself, this case still has relevance to the video game industry. Any developer that uses or exposes APIs should understand the distinction between declaring code and implementing code, and assess what is and is not permissible under the fair use guidelines the Supreme Court has set forth.

For more detailed coverage and analysis of this case, please read this writeup by Banner Witcoff attorneys Ross Dannenberg and Shawn O’Dowd. If you have any questions about whether your use or exposure of an API raises copyright concerns, reach out to a qualified intellectual property attorney to discuss your specific situation.