A Look at the Most Recent Landmark Copyright Case: Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc.

Post Authored By: Stephanie Nikitenko

The battle between the two tech giants, Oracle and Google, has come to a close, and the internet has been buzzing with the decision of this case for two major reasons. First, Google v. Oracle (or Oracle v. Google as it had been known for many years) is a long-running case of 9 years. Second, the ramifications of the ruling in this case will be felt for many years to come by both developers and individual coders alike. Please read on for a somewhat tumultuous procedural history as well as for what this Supreme Court decision means for the world of tech.

Procedural History

This case started back in 2010 when Oracle, the owner of Java, sued Google for, among other things, using Java Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) in its Android OS. Oracle claimed both copyright and patent infringement. In May of 2012, Judge William Alsup of the Northern District of California ruled in favor of Google, finding that APIs were not subject to copyright and that “Google and the public were and remain free to write their own implementations to carry out exactly the same functions of all methods in question.” [1] Oracle appealed the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. On May 9, 2014, the Federal Circuit issued a judgment in favor of Oracle, stating that APIs were in fact copyrightable, thereby reversing Judge Alsup’s judgment, but leaving open a possible fair use defense for Google. [2]

The case returned to the Northern District of California for a trial on Google’s fair use defense. In May of 2016, a jury unanimously found in favor of Google, holding that its use of Oracle’s Java API was fair use. [3] In March 2018, the Federal Circuit reversed the district court again, rejecting the jury’s verdict and holding that Google’s use was not fair use as a matter of law. [4] In August 2018, the Federal Circuit denied Google’s petition to rehear the entire case. [5] In November of 2019, the Supreme Court of United Stated granted Google’s writ of certiorari. Oral arguments were heard in October of 2020. In April 2021, the Supreme Court issued its ruling, which reversed the Federal Circuit and held that Google’s use of the Java APIs was fair use as a matter of law. [6]

The Court’s Analysis: A Very Brief Overview of Fair Use

The Copyright Act includes four guiding factors to determine whether a use is fair use:

            (1) the purpose and character of the use;

            (2) the nature of the copyrighted work;

            (3) the amount and substantiality of the copied portion in relation to the copyrighted                             work as a whole; and

            (4) the effect the use has on the market value of the copyrighted work. [7]

The Court found that all four of these factors weighed in favor of Google’s copying of the Java code being “fair use,” finally determining that “Google’s copying of the Java SE API, which included only those lines of code that were needed to allow programmers to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program, was a fair use of that material as a matter of law.” [8]


Beyond a favorable outcome for Google, other companies may leverage the Court’s decision in Google in their use of Java SE code. [9] For those individuals using Java SE in a similar fashion to Google, the fair use doctrine may protect them against alleged “unlicensed” use of Java and the often-steep licensing fees that may result. [10] The Supreme Court’s ruling represents a victory for programmers, developers, and other users who want to use their acquired knowledge and experience with software interfaces in subsequent platforms. [11]

For the full case text of Google v. Oracle, please click the following link: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/20pdf/18-956_d18f.pdf.

[1] Julie Samuels, No Copyrights on APIs: Judge Defends Interoperability and Innovation, electronic frontier foundation (May 2012), https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2012/05/no-copyrights-apis-judge-defends-interoperability-and-innovation.

[2] Oracle v. Google, electronic frontier foundation (Apr. 2021), https://www.eff.org/cases/oracle-vgoogle#:~:text=Oracle%2C%20since%20Google%20asked%20the,as%20a%20matter%20of%20law.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] The Copyright Act of 1976, 17 U.S.C. § 107.

[8] Michael Overly & Chloe Talbert, The Impact of Google v. Oracle: Google’s Big Win at the Supreme Court, JD Supra (Apr. 2021), https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/the-impact-of-google-v-oracle-google-s-1051271/.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Oracle v. Google, electronic frontier foundation (Apr. 2021), https://www.eff.org/cases/oracle-vgoogle#:~:text=Oracle%2C%20since%20Google%20asked%20the,as%20a%20matter%20of%20law.

About the Author:


Stephanie Nikitenko is currently a 3L at UIC John Marshall Law School in Chicago. At UIC John Marshall, she’s the President of the Intellectual Property Law Society (IPLS) and primarily concentrates her studies on the subject of Intellectual Property. She recently spent a semester working in the JMLS Trademark Clinic where she assisted clients with the Trademark Registration process with the USPTO. Additionally, under the supervision of an attorney, she currently assists a law firm with both their trademark and patent matters.

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