Google vs. Oracle: Explaining a Landmark in Copyright

Here at Aftermarket Law, we’re big fans of copyrights. They are used to protect original artistic works, from movies and songs to books and video games. Copyrights are essential for protecting many everyday aspects of the automotive aftermarket industry, from your marketing materials to your instruction manuals.

You may have heard of Google vs. Oracle, a high-profile Supreme Court case that waged on at the start of this year. The case, the reaction to it, and its ultimate verdict have major implications on the rest of Copyright Law. Before we get to that, however – let’s start at the beginning.

Google and Oracle are both companies that develop software and digital applications. In the early 2000’s, Google developed the Android programming that has powered many smartphones ever since. Most people have heard of it – you either have an iPhone or an Android (or you’ve still got a flip phone.) While developing the Android programming, Google used bits of programming code that had originally been developed by Oracle.

The actual bit of programming code that Google used is called the Application Programming Interface, abbreviated as API. The API basically sets that standard that everything else builds on. Imagine if every time that you wanted to write a word document, you had to first create Microsoft Word. That’s what software development is basically like. Before you create the software, you have to have a program that creates it – and Google used Oracle’s program.

Google has since moved to its own API in the Android software. Oracle took Google to court for the years that the Android software was using their API, arguing that they should receive some compensation in all those sales since their creation helped make them. Google was defending itself by arguing two separate points: that APIs were not copyrightable, and that their use of Oracle’s API fell under Fair Use.

Fair Use is a workaround that allows people to use copyrighted material in ways they normally could not in certain situations. It is typically reserved for noncommercial, nonprofit educational purposes. For instance, it would be illegal for you to give all of your friends a copy of a movie you bought. If a teacher were to give their students a copy of the movie to watch for schoolwork, however, it would fall under Fair Use. Even though Google received money as the result of using Oracle’s property, they argued it was fair use since it is industry standard practice to share APIs and the Android software they created with it added competition and jobs to the market.

The court battle raged on for years before finally concluding. Initially, two District level courts sided with Google. When petitioned, a Federal court sided with Oracle that APIs were copyrightable and Google’s actions were not covered under Fair Use. In April 2021, the Supreme Court issued the final decision siding with Google that their actions were indeed covered by Fair Use. The Supreme Court, however, refused to decide if APIs were copyrightable or not.

Although we do not develop software, we certainly recognize that this is a complex situation. While copyrighting APIs could stifle creativity and remove resources for independent developers, we also believe creators should be paid fairly for their work. The message here is clear: the future of copyright law is constantly changing, so get your work copyrighted and protected in the present.

For help protecting your automotive aftermarket intellectual property, contact Aftermarket Law today. If you made it, we protect it!

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