In April 2021, the Supreme Court finally resolved a decade-long copyright case in which both parties had won and lost multiple decisions, appeals and remands. While the case, Google LLC v Oracle America Inc, appeared to clarify some legal issues, it also left many observers scratching their heads over the degree of protection that copyrights provide.
Oracle first sued Google in the Northern District of California in 2010, claiming that Google had developed its Android operating system in a way that infringed Oracle's copyright and patents for its Java programming platform.
In 2012, the trial judge ruled that Java's application programming interfaces (APIs) – coding shortcuts that spare developers the need to write their own code to accomplish the same thing – were not copyrightable. Because Oracle's case also involved patent claims, the Federal Circuit automatically took on the case.
The Federal Circuit held in 2014 that Oracle's APIs were copyrightable (meaning that Google had infringed) and remanded the case to the Northern District of California to determine whether Google's incorporation of the APIs into Android constituted fair use. In a 2016 jury verdict, the district court ruled in Google's favour.
The Federal Circuit heard Oracle's appeal and, in the process, analysed the aspects of a fair-use claim that should be decided by judges and juries. The Court held in 2018 that Google's actions did not constitute fair use and remanded the case to the district court to decide the amount of damages that Google should pay to Oracle. It also reaffirmed that, in cases involving fair use, juries decide on factual issues and judges decide on matters of law. Google appealed to the Supreme Court, asking it to rule on whether APIs were copyrightable and whether use of Java's APIs in Android fell within fair use.
In April 2021, the Supreme Court decided that Android had acted within the bounds of fair use – which rendered moot the question about copyrighting APIs. The Court additionally held that Google did not have the right to a jury trial to decide matters of law, as Google had asserted, and reaffirmed both that juries must decide on underlying facts in dispute and that judges decide on matters of law in cases without disputed underlying facts.
There are three key takeaways from Google v Oracle.
The first is the importance of jury trials in fair use cases. There is a huge role for juries to play: they are the ultimate arbiter of a case's disputed facts. Judges might also choose to have juries rule on the law on an advisory basis using the facts they have determined, keeping in mind that, ultimately, the law is what judges say it is.
Next is that, in light of the case, it is likely that copyright holders will seek to enforce their copyrights more strictly by other means. While it is doubtful that the articulation and registration of software copyrights will change, for example, holders are advised to write stricter licensing agreements and put friction and stronger communication in place to remind developers about the copyright's ownership and conditions of use.
Finally, by potentially broadening fair-use protections in this particular context, the Supreme Court could have opened the door for similar interpretations not just for software, but also for books, films, music, photographs and more. On the other hand, the lower courts could reasonably view the Google v Oracle decision as based on a very specific set of facts and thus not widely applicable.
For further information on this topic please contact Gabriel Ramsey at Crowell & Moring LLP by telephone (+1 202 624 2500) or email ([email protected]). The Crowell & Moring LLP website can be accessed at www.crowell.com.