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Supreme Court hands Google a landmark win against Oracle over Java on Android

Sarthak Dogra     April 6, 2021

A recent verdict on a long-running copyright dispute between two technology majors is now being hailed as a victory for the open web. Reason - the legal battle argued the use of copyrights on developer codes, deciding whether developers can reimplement an API or not.

API or application programming interface is a bridge between two applications that help carry out a request by transferring packets of data. Every time you interact with an app like Facebook, you use an API that sends your request to the servers and then retrieves the information to your device.

Oracle had alleged a copyright infringement on about 12,000 lines of code Google copied from the Java API developed by Sun Microsystems. Since Oracle acquired the latter in 2010, it argued that Google owed it, to the amount of $9 billion, for using the code to build Android.

Oracle had hence sued Google over its use of the code. In the past two instances, Oracle had won the case on the grounds that the code in question was copyrightable. On the other hand, Google argued that its use of the code was meant for fair use and therefore not subject to copyright liability.

Over the decade of legal proceedings, the case gathered steam as it would eventually define the interoperability and openness of developer codes. What had now become a landmark dispute would shape the way the open web would be evolved and further worked upon.

Why a landmark ruling for Google?

On Monday, the US Supreme Court ruled in favour of Google, stating that reimplementing an API by copying its declarations is legally fair use under US copyright law. The apex court said that the decision applies even (or especially) for building a competitive service.

The Court's reasoning applies to all cases where developers reimplement an API. The practice enables interoperability, allowing developers to use familiar commands. This further empowers more innovation on the software front.

The Court's decision was 6-2, reversing the appeals court's earlier decision. It was based on the understanding that Google's use of the API allowed programmers to use a familiar programming language to create new computing fronts. Google's actions were hence found to be in support of interoperability.

The fair use trumped Oracle's stance, which would have left the programmers in a closed environment for the time to come had it been taken up. Even though Google intentionally copied the material, its intent and implication were found to be in the general interest of the future of the Internet.

Google was not the only one supporting the cause. Mozilla also backed the tech major. In a recent blog, the company hails the Court's decision, having argued the earlier ones time and again. The company said that the earlier rulings were not in line with how software is developed and could have hindered the industry.

Mozilla had filed an amicus brief with the Court during the recent hearing, suggesting that APIs should not be copyrightable. Alternatively, it argued that the reimplementation of APIs should be covered by fair use. The Court took the second of these options, and it might just be the biggest decision to shape the Internet for the time to come.

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