UnIP (UnIntellectual Property): Copyright for Function of API

Oracle sued Google for copyright infringement over Google’s use of the Java software programming language in its Android software platform for mobile devices.  The United States District Court for the Northern District of California held that Google did not engage in copyright infringement by writing its own source code using different implementations but providing the same functions as Oracle’s application programming interface (API) packages.

Adhering to Ninth Circuit precedent, the Court recognized that under the Copyright Act, the structure, sequence and organization of a computer program may or may not qualify as a protectable element depending on the particular facts of each case and always subject to exclusion of unprotectable elements.  After a comprehensive review of the case law relating to the copyrightability of computer programs, the Court further recognized the following principles:

1. Under the merger doctrine, when there is only one (or only a few) ways to express something, then no one can claim ownership of such expression by copyright.

2. Under the names doctrine, names and short phrases are not copyrightable.
3. Under Section 102(b), copyright protection never extends to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation or concept regardless of its form. Functional elements essential for interoperability are not copyrightable.
4. Under Feist, we should not yield to the temptation to find copyrightability merely to reward an investment made in a body of intellectual property.
Applying the above doctrines to the facts of the case, the Court refused to afford copyright protection to the mere functions that result from Oracle’s application programming interface (API) packages.  Oracle’s copyrighting one implementation of its API did not afford it exclusive right to any and all possible implementations.  “To accept Oracle’s claim would be to allow anyone to copyright one version of code to carry out a system of commands and thereby bar all others from writing their own different versions to carry out all or part of the same commands. No holding has ever endorsed such a sweeping proposition.”
These cases involving source code are tough for both technical and legal reasons.  Would patent protection have provided a better position for Oracle?  Had Oracle (or more accurately Sun) not made Java open source, so as to allow treatment and protection as a trade secret, prevented this result?  Hard to tell.
Oracle Am., Inc. v. Google Inc., 872 F. Supp. 2d 974 (N.D. Cal. 2012).


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