On May 9, 2014, a federal appeals court reversed a California trial court’s determination that 37 API packages that are part of Oracle’s famous Java programming platform were not subject to copyright protection. The appellate court found that the lower court was wrong when it concluded that (i) the way in which Oracle expressed the ideas conveyed through the application programming interface (API) packages “merged” with the ideas themselves; (ii) the short, common phrases in which part of the API code was written do not merit protection; and (iii) the API code constitutes a functional method of operation.
Among other key findings, the appellate court emphasized that, in evaluating whether a work is eligible for copyright protection — as distinguished from whether a defendant infringed a protected work — the proper focus must be on whether and, to what extent, the author claiming protection (here, Oracle) had choices available to it when deciding how to express particular ideas or, in the case of software, how to achieve certain functions. According to the appellate court, the fact that Google wanted to leverage Oracle’s successful Java development platform in order to encourage developers to write apps for Android did not give Google free license to copy the precise language, structure, sequence, and organization of Oracle’s API code.
Importantly, however, the appellate court remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings on Google’s “fair use” defense. Serious questions concerning Google’s desire to leverage Java’s success in connection with Android, the nature and amount of code that Google copied, and the marketplace impact that Google’s conduct has had on Oracle will be central to that inquiry. In other words, the case is far from over.
Software developers, and those who rely on APIs as part of their business model, will find the appellate court’s decision well worth a read. Among other things, the decision provides a rare, clearly written explanation of a very complicated topic — namely, how copyright protection applies to software — and an interesting discussion about the interplay between copyright protection and patent protection in the software space.