Copyright Dispute Between Oracle and Google May Be Decided By Supreme Court

Published On January 22, 2015 | By Adam Elewa | General, Litigation
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The Supreme Court may soon decide whether certain aspects of Oracle’s Java programing language are protected by copyright law. The case began in a California district court, where the court held that Oracle’s copyright claims against Google largely failed because the code allegedly copied was not protected by copyright law. The Federal Circuit substantially overruled this holding, finding that the district court had misapplied copyright law. Google appealed to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court has since asked the Solicitor General to weigh in on the dispute, suggesting that the Court may decide the matter this term.


Sun Microsystems, Inc., now owned by Oracle, developed the Java platform to relieve developers of having to write different versions of their programs for different computing environments and operating systems. The Java programing language allowed any program written in Java to run on any computer or device that has the Java platform (or Java virtual machine) installed. Google set out a similar objective for its Android operating system (“Android”). Like Java, Android allows developers to write programs using the Android programing language that will run on any device that has Android installed rather than having to write different versions for different manufacture’s mobile devices.

Initially, Google sought to license the Java platform for incorporation into Android . Negotiations collapsed when Google refused to allow programs written for Android to be compatible with the Java virtual machine. Instead of obtaining a license, Google developed its own virtual machine, Dalvik, to be used in Android . To ensure the programming language was familiar to developers with Java experience, Google copied certain aspects of the Java programing language in creating Dalvik, including the naming, structure, organization, and a few lines of code from several basic pre-written functions provided by the Java programing language. Copying these lines of code enabled developers to build elementary functions into their own programs without having to write their own code from scratch.

Copyright issues

At issue in this case is whether copyright law protects any aspects of these basic functions, commonly referred to as application programing interfaces (APIs). Oracle maintains that the names of these functions, how the functions are structured and organized, and the actual code that comprises the functions are all protected, and are thus subject to its open source software license.

Merger Doctrine

First, the Federal Circuit disagreed with the district court applying the “merger doctrine” in analyzing whether the names of API functions are protected. The merger doctrine provides that only expressions of ideas, and not ideas themselves, can be protected. Thus, though ideas can be the premise to books or movies, copyright only protects the expression of those ideas in some tangible format, such as in writing. Sometimes, ideas can only be expressed in a very limited number of ways. Copyright law does not protect the expression of ideas that have a limited means of expression because to protect the expression of such ideas would be to limit others from expressing the underlying ideas.

The Federal Circuit found that the merger doctrine did not preclude copyright protection for Oracle’s API naming scheme. Oracle had almost unlimited possibilities for naming functions, and the evidence strongly suggested that Google’s only reason for adopting identical function names was to make its programing language familiar to Java developers. Consequently, the court saw no danger that protection of Java’s function names would limit Google’s ability to express similar ideas.

Copyright protection for short names and phrases

Second, the Federal Circuit held that the district court misinterpreted legal precedent preventing protection of “names and short phrases.” [W]ords and short phrases such as names, titles, and slogans” are not subject to copyright protection unless they are sufficiently creative. The Federal Circuit remanded the issue for a determination of whether Java’s API names are sufficiently creative to overcome the general prohibition against protection.

Scenes a Faire Doctrine

Third, the Federal Circuit accepted the district court’s application of the “scenes a faire doctrine.” The doctrine bars creative expression from copyright protection where the expression is “standard, stock, or common to a topic, or if they necessarily follow from a common theme or setting.” In the computer context, the doctrine denies copyright protection to program elements necessitated by external factors, such as the mechanical specifications of the computer on which a particular program is intended to run, or widely accepted programing practices. Agreeing with the district court, the Federal Circuit held that Google did not establish that it copied the Java code due to external factors or features that were either commonplace or essential to the idea being expressed. Also, the Federal Circuit agreed that the doctrine requires consideration of whether Sun was driven by external factors or drawing on commonplace practices when drafting its code, not Google when it was making the decision to copy it.

Copyright protection for “systems or methods of operation”

Fourth, the Federal Circuit disagreed with the district court’s reliance on a First Circuit case in its analysis of whether the hierarchical organization of the APIs is protected. The Federal Circuit held that copyright could protect such hierarchical organizations contained in computer programs, citing numerous Ninth Circuit decisions affording protection to the naming and organization used in computer software.

Google’s interoperability argument

Lastly, the Federal Circuit found that the district court erred in its consideration of interoperability in its copyright analysis. Interoperability, or designing a program to be compatible with other programs, raises copyright issues as developers may often copy aspects of other programs to ensure compatibility. Copyright law treats such situations differently, but the Federal Circuit held that the lower court largely misapplied the principle.

First, the district court should not have considered Google’s motive to enable interoperability when determining whether Java was protected by copyright law. Interoperability is not relevant to whether a program is copyright protectable; rather it acts as a defense to liability for a copyright violation.

Second, the district court misinterpreted case law, denying protection to code created to enable interoperability as allowing the court to deny protection to any code copied by others to enable interoperability. Under the district court’s reading, anytime otherwise protected code needs to be copied by others to enable interoperability, that code loses its copyright protection. The Federal Circuit court found this to be a misreading of case law that only denies protection to code that is not creative and is crafted merely to meet the demands of interoperability. Case law, according to the Federal Circuit, says nothing about removing copyright protection from otherwise protected code merely because others need to copy it to ensure interoperability.

Third, the district court assumed without sufficient evidence that Google copied Java to enable interoperability when the record showed that Google specifically designed Android to not be compatible with programs written for the Java platform.

Lastly, the Federal Circuit held that copyright law did not support Google’s argument that the APIs should not be protected because they have become “industry standard,” and their naming and structure is familiar to developers.


The Federal Circuit remanded the case to the district court for further consideration in light of its ruling and allowed Google to get a second hearing on its defense of fair use. Google has appealed the Federal Circuit decision to the Supreme Court with the hopes that they will have a different, more favorable, interpretation of copyright law. Any holding may dramatically impact open source copyright issues, so companies in the technology field should pay particular attention to further developments.

Photo by toffehoff from Flickr

About The Author

Adam works on product counseling, law enforcement compliance, regulatory compliance, and litigation in conjunction with ZwillGen attorneys. Prior to joining ZwillGen, Adam was a legal intern with Venmo, a mobile payments start-up, during the summer of 2013. While he was there, he worked with a small team of software developers to tackle compliance issues related to direct marketing, money transmitter regulations, and user privacy.