Impact of Google v. Oracle at SCOTUS

By:  Benjamin D. Bucinell

Google v. Oracle, currently pending before the US Supreme Court, has the potential to provide one of the most significant copyright decisions from SCOTUS involving the tech industry.  Application Programing Interfaces (APIs) are an important tool, widely utilized in interoperability between platforms.  The tech and software industry has assumed that APIs do not incur copyright protections.  This assumption has been called into question as the Supreme Court decides two main questions.  First, whether copyright protection extends to a software interface (which would include APIs)?  And if yes, whether Google’s use of API software interface in the creation of a new computer program falls within fair use?

Practitioners on each side have painted very different pictures of how this ruling may disrupt their industry.  Oracle argues that if copyright protections are not afforded to APIs, there will be no incentive to “create high-quality user-facing declaring code” since it can be freely copied.  Conversely, Google argues that affording copyright protection to APIs goes against years of industry expectations.  Additionally, preventing the ability to copy APIs may stifle innovation as time and resources must be diverted away from improving the existing body of code, to building APIs.  If so, programmers may need to intentionally create incompatible APIs to avoid complex and costly legal battles.  It is also worth noting that if copyright protections are afforded to APIs, the fair use defense may not be a cure-all for the industry.

Even if Google’s actions are found to be fair use, this does not guarantee the same outcome for others.  Under a fair use analysis, the particularities of each case are examined and the factors are balanced.  This inquiry must consider: “(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes; (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.”  Ultimately, if compatible APIs are removed from programmers’ repeaters, interoperability between platforms will fade and innovation will be hindered.