Access and Feeds

Fair Use of APIs: A Victory for Software Developers

By Dick Weisinger

Earlier this year the Supreme Court ruled on a case brought by Oracle against Google on the use of APIs of the Java language. Code used by Google followed the standard signatures of common Java API methods. The case questioned whether it is legal to re-use rather than re-implement standard API interfaces.

Oracle claimed that it owned a copyright on the Java APIs which includes the signature of the methods and even though Google re-implemented the internal workings of the methods, re-use of the standard Java interface is a breach of the copyright. The case between Oracle and Google was battled out in the court room for more than ten years.

Google argued that adopting the Java interface for their implementation in Google Android was “fair use” of the software. Google argued that being able to follow an established interface enables interoperability of software.

Tom Goldstein, one of the lawyers for Google in the case, rationalized their argument saying “our pitch to the Supreme Court was that the developers, the little guys, were our heroes and we were standing in for them… Google was going to be OK – we were going to make it. But what [the adverse rulings in the lower courts were] going to do was to make it much harder for independent developers to have the ability to use the skills that they had learned on various platforms and apply them on other platforms. That they were going to get locked in by large software companies, whether Oracle – or someone else – like Google.”

The court ruled that Google’s use of the code satisfies the requirement for “fair use” defined in the US Copyright Act. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the majority that “Google, through Android, provided a new collection of tasks operating in a distinct and different computing environment. Those tasks were carried out through the use of new implementing code (that Google wrote) designed to operate within that new environment. The 11,000 lines of Java code in question constitute less than one half of one percent of the code employed by Google.”

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