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The supreme court rules on Google and Oracle relating to APIs

Let’s lead with the biggest tech news – in a ruling Monday, the Supreme Court found that Google could legally use API’s from Oracle’s Java when it built Android.

Quoting from the Verge:

Google’s copying of the API to reimplement a user interface, taking only what was needed to allow users to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program, constituted a fair use of that material,” the Supreme Court ruled in a 6-2 opinion, with one justice (Amy Coney Barrett) not taking part in the ruling. It overturned an earlier federal decision, which found that Google’s use of the API had constituted infringement.

The ruling determines that APIs are different from other portions of the code.   “As part of an interface, the copied lines are inherently bound together with uncopyrightable ideas … and the creation of new creative expression,” Justice Stephen Breyer writes in his opinion. Unlike many other computer programs, Breyer wrote, much of the copied lines’ value came from developers being invested in the ecosystem, rather than the actual operations of the program. Google used the API to let Java programmers build Android apps, which the court declared is a fundamentally transformative use.

The decision specifically focuses on APIs, and does not change knockoff products, journalistic writings and parodies.    The justices specially cite fair use as a new creative expression.

As covered previously, this is a 10 year old court battle between the two companies. 

Why do we care?

This is a big deal in that it codifies what has become common practice.      Open ecosystems require this to be the case, and now there is case law backing it up.    It establishes that interfaces are not copyrightable, although it doesn’t explicitly say that.     It’s holding the status quo – which, arguably, is good for tech.    Certainly there isn’t a need to rebuild anything.  

This isn’t a binary choice – open or closed, free or proprietary.   It’s a spectrum, and we have a healthy lens now.   Fair use doctrine applies. 

With regulation also on the horizon, the interpretation of the Courts is going to matter more and more.