Supreme Court Rules Reimplementing an API Is Not a Crime

The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that Google’s reimplementation of Oracle’s Java API in Android was fair use and not a copyright violation. The ruling puts to bed a decade-long legal saga and is a huge win not only for Google but for all software developers, as reimplementing APIs is very common in software development.

APIs, or Application Programming Interfaces, are libraries of code that can be reimplemented to perform various functions. The Supreme Court has now ruled that this practice, already common among programmers, falls under the fair use exception for copyright. 

“Google’s copying of the Java SE API, which included only those lines of code that were needed to allow programmers to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program, was a fair use of that material as a matter of law,” the Supreme Court ruled. 

In the lawsuit, Oracle, which develops Java, tried to secure partial ownership of Android, far-and-away the most popular smartphone operating system in the world. Google reimplemented roughly 11,500 lines of code from Oracle’s Java SE; Android is made up of millions of lines of code. The question, broadly speaking, was whether Google “stole” that code or whether it was fairly using it to create something different. 

The question of “fair use” is hugely important in software development, journalism, video game streaming, and a host of other industries; it is a carve-out in copyright laws that allows for a person or corporation to use someone else’s work without permission if it is transformative, if it is used for criticism, research, or a few other reasons. The issue is that there are no hard-and-fast rules for fair use. Whether something was fairly used has to be litigated by a court, which can be an incredibly costly affair. These types of legal cases—this one took 11 years, had numerous appeals, and ultimately went to the Supreme Court—can be easily fought by a company like Google. They’re harder to fight for independent artists, individual creators, and small companies.

The decision will set precedent for other programmers, and is likely to be especially important for the free and open source software (FOSS) community, which often builds off of other programmers’ work to create new software. Had Oracle won, the entire collaborative culture of software development could have changed as projects suddenly become subject to endless copyright wars and lawsuits, with API writers constantly trying to get royalties or ownership of programs that used their code. 

In 2016, Motherboard wrote that in many ways the FOSS community as a whole was on trial in Google v. Oracle, and that “the law really is completely out of touch with what the technology actually is, with reality itself. Just look at the Federal Circuit opinion that ruled that APIs are copyrightable [an earlier decision in this legal saga], where they say, ‘Google was free to develop its own API packages and to ‘lobby’ programmers to adopt them.’ A federal appeals court actually proposed that in some alternate universe, Android launched and told developers to write apps in a language they’d never encountered before.” 

This does not mean that anyone can use anyone else’s code for any purpose whatsoever; the Supreme Court held that in this specific instance, Google took “only what was needed to allow users to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program.”

Oracle, for its part, said that “the Google platform just got bigger and market power greater. The barriers to entry higher and the ability to compete lower. They stole Java and spent a decade litigating as only a monopolist can.” 

Google is indeed a gigantic company, but in this case, a decision for Oracle would have made software development not only more difficult but also more legally risky—for big companies and small developers alike.

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