The Federal Circuit today overruled a federal district judge and held that Oracle’s API computer source code qualifies for copyright protection, potentially breathing new life into Oracle’s billion-dollar lawsuit against Google. Oracle America, Inc. v. Google Inc., Case No. 13-1021 (Fed. Cir. May 9, 2014). The court reinstated the jury’s copyright-infringement verdict against Google’s Android operating system and remanded the case to the trial court for a new trial on the unresolved issues of fair use and damages.

Background and Decision

The dispute between Oracle and Google involves 37 packages of computer source code the parties refer to as “application programming interfaces,” or “APIs.” APIs allow programmers to efficiently take advantage of the built-in functions of a computer’s operating system. Oracle sued Google claiming Google’s Android operating system infringed Oracle’s copyrights by including 37 Java APIs. The jury agreed.

Google claimed the declaring code and structure, sequence, and organization of 37 API packages were not copyrightable. The trial court ruled that, although creative and original, the declaring code and structure, sequence, and organization of the 37 API packages are “nevertheless a command structure, a system or method of operation” and, therefore, not entitled to copyright protection under Section 102(b) of the Copyright Act.

The Federal Circuit - noting the parties’ agreement that Oracle’s API packages met the originality requirement under Section 102(a) - rejected Google’s argument that Section 102(b) can take away copyright protection simply because a work contains a functional component. The court noted that “Section 102(b) in no way enlarges or contracts the scope of copyright protection” and found that “the district court failed to distinguish between the threshold question of what is copyrightable - which presents a low bar - and the scope of conduct that constitutes infringing activity.” The court further determined that “the declaring code and the structure, sequence, and organization of the API packages are entitled to copyright protection.”

Implication

The Federal Circuit’s ruling that the the declaring code and structure, sequence, and organization of the  API code qualified for copyright protection could have a dramatic impact on the software industry which relies heavily on copyright protection to help spur innovation. The decision arguably broadens copyright protections for computer code and related software, and developers must be cognizant of both the new protections available to them and the increased risk of copyright infringement when working in well-established areas.