US Supreme Court Decides - GOOGLE LLC v. ORACLE AMERICA, INC. - Significant Impact on Interoperability

By kev_nag | kev_nag | 7 Apr 2021


Some history is necessary. In December of 1990, Sun Microsystems developed Java which included a new programming language, a virtual machine, and a set of libraries for use with the new language. The libraries created were documented for programmers by way of APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) which told the programmers what information to provide and what results were expected in return. In this way, eliminated was the programmers need to know how the library they were using accomplished the end result. Taken together, the libraries constitute the Java Virtual Machine upon which the programmers write the programs used. The common way a set of like libraries are utilized across all Java Virtual Machines provides interoperability throughout. As such, only one version of software need be created by a programmer as the single group of APIs present in Java Virtual Machines allow the software to be run on any Java supported platform.

The Java language was initially released under the Sun Community Source License in 1995, which made the source code freely available, but required products which used the code to adhere to Java standards and the derivative works be licensed by Sun. From 1995 to 2010, many changes were made to the Sun business model as well as to the Java Program itself, but these changes are not relevant to this article. Announced in 2009 and finalized in January 2010, Oracle acquired Sun and came into control of the Java language.

Parallel to this, in 2003, Android, Inc. was founded with the expressed purpose of developing a mobile phone platform. In 2006, Google acquired Android and continued with the development of the Android Operating System. Google wanted to incorporate the Java Standard Edition libraries into its platform, but due to ideological differences Google was denied a license for Java by Sun. Despite this denial, Google developed a clean room version of the Java libraries to be utilized in the Android operating system. Initially Google maintained they used this code to provide interoperability with Java Standard for other programmers, but during the second appeal admitted they used the Java code to rapidly complete the Android system and to avoid the necessity of recreating the code. Google took over complete maintenance of these libraries in 2011.

The first phase of this case took place from 2010 through 2015 wherein Oracle established that APIs are subject to copyright but failed in its claims of patent infringement. In 2014 Google petitioned the US Supreme Court to review the case, but certiorari was denied. In January 2019, Google filed a second petition with the US Supreme Court which included the lower courts findings that APIs are subject to copyright, which petition was granted and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

At the crux of Google's case is whether copyright itself extends to software interfaces such as APIs and whether Google's use of the Java APIs fell within the fair use exception as found by the lower courts. Over 150 amicus briefs were filed in support of Google's position warning that a finding in favor of Oracle would damage the computing world as a whole.

Originally the case was to be heard by the US Supreme Court on March 24, 2020 but the oral argument sessions were postponed due to COVID-19 concerns. It was later announced that the case was postponed from the Court's 2019-2020 term to the first week of the 2020-2021 term. 

A full history of the case is presented in the Supreme Court's decision and may be found at for those interested.


On April 5, 2021 the Court's decision was rendered. By a 6 to 2 majority, it was found that the use of the Java APIs by Google was within the fair use exception of traditional copyright. Writing for the majority, Justice Breyer began with the assumption that APIs are subject to copyright proceeding therefrom to examine the four factors that contribute to fair use. The factors examined are: "(1) the purpose and character of the use...; (2) the nature of the copyrighted work; (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and (4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work" [593 U.S __ (2021)]. Applying these four factors to the facts present, Justice Breyer found that Google's use of the Java APIs satisfied all four factors and that Google used "only what was needed to allow users to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program." [Fung, Brian (April 5, 2021). "Supreme Court hands Google a victory in a multibillion-dollar case against Oracle". CNN]. Breyer also found that if the Court would side with Oracle in this case, it "would risk harm to the public" [593 U.S. __ (2021)] as a decision for Oracle might prove highly profitable to Oracle (or other entities holding copyrights in APIs) but would deter the Copyright Laws basic objectives of fostering creativity.

Breyer concluded that Google's copying of the Java APIs constituted a fair use, and therefore did not violate copyright law; [see, e.g. Gresko, Jessica (April 5, 2021. "Top court sides with Google in copyright dispute with Oracle". Associated Press via ABC News; 593 U.S __ (2021). The conclusion reached by the Court rendered the necessity of examining the copyright of the API on the whole unnecessary.


Given the wide spread use of APIs, a decision in this case in favor of Oracle would have had tremendous effects on both the past as well as future development of software technology. Google and other amicus Android developers raised the basic concerns of the impact upon interoperability, innovation in software development, as well as the potential of fraud by bad actors. If the lower courts ruling was permitted to stand, they advanced that software developers would be forced into a situation of utilizing incompatible standards to seek protection from the risk of protracted complex litigation. The result therefrom would be a move far removed from the current developmental trend toward improvement of interoperability thereby creating more integrated platforms for end users [see, e.g., Lee, Timothy (January 25, 2019). "Google asks Supreme Court to overrule disastrous ruling on API copyrights". Ars Technica]. 

As such, both legal experts as well as software industry experts agree that victory for Oracle in this case would have a chilling effect stifling software development. Copyright holders could prevent use of their APIs in interoperable alternatives developed through reverse engineering as is prevalent in open source software development [see, e.g. Caballar, Rina Diane (February 19, 2020). "Google v. Oracle Explained: The Fight for Interoperable Software". IEEE Spectrum.; see also, Livni, Ephrat (November 20, 2019). "US Supreme Court holds innovation in the balance in Google v Oracle". Quartz.]

Juxtaposed to this, some experts raise caution that judgment in favor of Google would weaken copyright protection for software code developers. It is their position that the resultant weakened copyright protections would allow firms with better and greater resources to develop improved products from the smaller firms with inferior resources thereby reducing motivation for innovation in the software industry [see, e.g. Auth, Dorothy R.; Wizenfeld, Howard (February 7, 2020). "Google v. Oracle: Will Software Be Free?". National Law Review.; see also, Stricklett, Sue Ghosh (September 8, 2020). Google v. Oracle: An Expansive Fair Use Defense Deters Investment In Original Content". IP Watchdog.]

All in all, it is this writers opinion that the decision rendered benefits not only the software industry but the general public as a whole. By permitting interoperability to reign in this case a vehicle is provided to foster integrated platforms rendering the technological and internet industries not to mention Cryptocurrency and DeFi concerns, the ability to offer a wider circle of available products and services in a simpler more economical fashion. Note, this is one man's opinion and should not be relied upon as advice for any financial, investment, or business action. Rely upon you own research prior to action and proceed at your own risk.


I am merely an ordinary small investor who likes to share what I've learned and found interesting. Please take a few minutes and check out my other published articles. I am not in any way a financial advisor and as such, do your own research before investing. If you enjoyed this article please like it, comment and/or tip. Feedback is always welcome here.


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Just an ordinary casual crypto investor.


Retired, finally. I enjoy learning about crypto and sharing my discoveries. Also, I follow the News closely and enjoy discussing current events. I have no political agenda, but advance views based in reality with a slant toward real world consequences.

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