Recap of the Supreme Court’s Google v. Oracle Opinion

The following post comes from Liz Velander, a recent graduate of Scalia Law and a Research Assistant at CPIP.

By Liz Velander

The Supreme Court finally reached a determination in the decade-long dispute between two of the biggest technology companies in the world, Google and Oracle. Many have long-awaited the Court’s decision in this case, as it had the potential to provide market certainty in the software industry through its copyrightability analysis. The Court ultimately declines to give that certainty by bypassing the copyrightability issue and choosing to base its holding on a fact-intensive fair use analysis. The Court does this so as to “not answer more than is necessary to resolve the parties’ dispute,” “given the rapidly changing technological, economic, and business-related circumstances.” It emphasizes that its holding is narrow, only applies to declaring code, and does not modify its prior cases on fair use. However, by framing its opinion this way, the Court provides new arguments for infringers to use in a fair use defense in the software sphere and beyond. For this reason, the Court’s decision is not as narrow as it sets out to be. It may lead to lower court decisions that broaden the fair use doctrine and limit the copyright protection given to software.

The Court’s decision broadens fair use by using the doctrine to loosen copyright protection for certain types of code, allowing for a more expansive reading of a “transformative use,” and giving great weight to the public benefit of the use. Before it engages in its fair use analysis, the Court states that “fair use can play an important role in determining the lawful scope of a computer program copyright, such as the copyright at issue here.” Fair use “can distinguish between expressive and functional features of computer code where those features are mixed.” It can also “focus on the legitimate need to provide incentives to produce copyrighted material while examining the extent to which yet further protection creates unrelated or illegitimate harms in other markets or to the development of other products.” The Court describes fair use as a “context-based check that can help to keep a copyright monopoly within its lawful bounds.”

To highlight the ability of fair use to accomplish these goals, the Court begins its analysis with the second statutory factor, “the nature of the copyrighted work.” The Court uses this factor to discuss issues that would have come up if it analyzed the copyrightability of Oracle’s material, such as the applicability of the merger doctrine. It then moves to “the purpose and character of the use,” where it adopts an expansive reading of what constitutes a “transformative use.” The biggest impact of the Court’s fair use analysis, however, will likely come from the great weight it gives to the public benefit of the use under the market effect factor. By using fair use to determine “the lawful scope of a computer program copyright,” the Court’s holding may inadvertently broaden the fair use doctrine.

The Nature of the Copyrighted Work

The Court begins its analysis with describing “the nature of the copyrighted work.” The copyright at issue protects a portion of Oracle’s Java SE platform, called declaring code. Java SE has three essential parts: (1) implementing code, (2) method calls, and (3) declaring code. Implementing code tells the computer how to execute the particular task the programmer asks it to perform. Method calls are commands that help the computer carry out the task by choosing the correct programs written in implementing code. The declaring code is how the method call actually locates and invokes the particular implementing code that it needs to instruct the computer how to carry out a particular task.

For each task, the specific method call entered by the programmer matches up with a specific declaring code inside Java SE. That declaring code provides both the name for each task and organizes them within Java SE’s library. In this sense, the declaring code and the method call form a link, allowing the programmer to draw upon the thousands of prewritten tasks, written in implementing code. Without that declaring code, the method calls entered by the programmer would not call up the implementing code.

In this case, Google did not copy the implementing code from Oracle’s Java SE platform; it copied the declaring code. The Court draws a “critical line” between the uncopied implementing code and the copied declaring code under this factor. On one hand is the innovative implementing code and on the other, user-centered declaring code. The Court explains that the writing of implementing code requires balancing considerations as to how quickly a computer can execute a task or the likely size of a computer memory. The Court says that this balancing is “the very creativity that was needed to develop the Android software for use not in laptops or desktops but in the very different context of smartphones.”

Declaring code, the Court says, embodies a different kind of “creativity” because it is user facing. It must be designed and organized in a way that is intuitive and understandable to developers so they can invoke it. As part of a user interface, declaring code differs from most computer code because “its use is inherently bound together with uncopyrightable ideas (general task division and organization) and new creative expression (Android’s implementing code).” For these reasons, the Court concludes that “the declaring code is, if copyrightable at all, further than are most computer programs (such as the implementing code) from the core of copyright.” Therefore, the Court finds that the second factor, “nature of the copyrighted work,” points in the direction of fair use.

The Purpose and Character of the Use

The Court explains that the inquiry into “the purpose and character” of the use turns in a large measure on whether the copying at issue was “transformative,” that is, whether it “adds something new, with a further purpose or different character.” The Court finds that, even though Google copied Oracle’s declaring code verbatim, its use was “transformative” because it furthered the development of software programs.

The Court explains that what Google did is known as “‘reimplementation,’ defined as the ‘building of a system . . . that repurposes the same words and syntaxes’ of an existing system.” Google “reimplemented” Oracle’s declaring code to allow programmers expert in the Java programming language to use the “task calling” system that they had already learned. By using the same declaring code, programmers using the Android platform can rely on the method calls that they are already familiar with to call up particular tasks. Then Google’s own implementing code carries out those tasks.

The Court concludes that Google’s copying was a transformative use. “Google’s purpose was to create a different task-related system for a different computing environment (smartphones) and to create a platform—the Android platform—that would help achieve and popularize that objective.” Such use is “consistent with the creative ‘progress’ that is the basic constitutional objective of copyright itself.” Therefore, the purpose and character of Google’s copying was transformative to the point at which this factor also weighs in favor of fair use.

The Amount and Substantiality of the Portion Used

 The Court says that the question here is whether the over 11,000 lines of code Google copied should be viewed in isolation or as one part of a considerably greater whole. On one hand, those lines of code amount to virtually all the declaring code needed to call up hundreds of different tasks. On the other hand, if one considers the entire set of software material in the Java SE platform, the quantitative amount copied was small (only 0.4 percent).

The Court decides to view Google’s copying as one part of a greater whole because the amount of copying was “tethered to a valid, and transformative, purpose.” It explains that Google did not copy the lines because of their creativity but because programmers had already learned to work with the Java SE platform, and it would have been difficult to attract programmers to build its Android smartphone system without them. It describes the portion of the declaring code used at “the key that [Google] needed to unlock the programmers’ creative energies. And it needed those energies to create and improve its own innovative Android systems.” For these reasons, the Court holds that this factor weighs in favor of fair use.

Market Effects

The fourth statutory factor focuses upon the “effect” of the copying in the “market for or value of the copyrighted work.” The Court explains that this requires a court to consider the copyright owner’s potential loss of revenue, the source of the loss, and the public benefits the copying will likely produce. As to the likely amount of loss, the Court states that Oracle was ill-positioned to enter the smartphone market, so the jury could have found that Android did not harm the actual or potential markets for Java SE. As to the source of the loss, the Court finds Android’s profitability has much to do with third parties’ (programmers’) investment in the Java programs and less to do with Oracle’s investment in creating the Java SE platform. It says that the Copyright Act does not protect third parties’ investment in learning how to operate a created work.

Finally, given programmers’ investments in learning the Java SE platform, to allow enforcement of Oracle’s copyright here would risk harm to the public by operating as a lock on innovation. “The result could well prove highly profitable to Oracle (or other firms holding a copyright in computer interfaces). But those profits could well flow from creative improvements, new applications, and new uses developed by users who have learned to work with that interface. To that extent, the lock would interfere with, not further, copyright’s basic creativity objectives.” The Court concludes that the uncertain nature of Oracle’s “ability to compete in Android’s market place, the sources of its lost revenue, and the risk of creativity-related harms to the public, when taken together, convince that this fourth factor—market effects—also weighs in favor of fair use.”

The Court ends its opinion by noting that “the fact that computer programs are primarily functional makes it difficult to apply traditional copyright concepts in that technical world.” While that is certainly true, the Court made its work more difficult by basing its opinion in fair use instead of analyzing the copyrightability of Oracle’s code in the first place.