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Google v. Oracle Decision Troubling for Creators

On April 5, the Supreme Court rendered its decision in Google vs. Oracle. The court ruled 6-2 that Google’s copying of Oracle’s Java code fell under fair use, with Justices Thomas and Alito. The decision is a blow to creators and copyright holders, who fear that an overly broad interpretation of the fair use doctrine will render their copyrights meaningless. Last year, the Graphic Artists Guild joined other creators’ organizations on an amicus brief that expressed these concerns.

The Court’s opinion, rendered by Justice Breyer, skirts the question of whether API code is copyrightable. The decision focused on the four factors of fair use, concluding that “…where Google reimplemented a user interface, taking only what was needed to allow users to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program, Google’s copying of the Sun Java API was a fair use of that material as a matter of law.” In the dissent, Justice Thomas asserted that the Sun Java API is copyrightable and criticized the majority opinion’s fair use analysis as deeply flawed.

There is some sliver of comfort in the decision. In his analysis of the decision, the Copyright Alliance’s Kevin Madigan points out that the Court limited its determination to the specific code in the case.  However, he points out that there is a danger that lower courts will ignore this caution and misapply the Supreme Court’s ruling to cases involving other types of copyrighted work. That would lead to a broadening application of the fair use doctrine to the detriment of all creators.