Oracle America Inc. v. Google, LLC: Oracle Prevails in Fair Use Case before Federal Circuit; CDAS Provides Amicus Support

Last week the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California’s ruling of fair use in Oracle America, Inc. v. Google LLC, and held that a verbatim and non-transformative taking in the presence of an actual or potential licensing market fatally undermined the defense.  Oracle had sued Google for copyright infringement, alleging that Google had unlawfully used 37 packages of Oracle’s Java application programming interface – “pre-written Java source code programs” that serve as shortcuts for various computer functions to save programming time – in its Android-powered devices.  Google copied verbatim 11,500 lines of Oracle’s copyrighted computer code as well as the structure, sequence, and organizing of the packages.  After a second jury trial on fair use, Google prevailed on its fair use defense, and Oracle appealed after the district court rejected its post-trial motion for judgment as a matter of law.

The Federal Circuit disagreed with the district court’s assessment, and analyzed each of the four fair use factors in 17 U.S.C. 107.  In particular, under the first factor (nature and purpose of the use), the court held that Google’s use of Oracle’s code was both commercial and not “transformative” because the purpose of the software packages in Google’s Android operating system was the same as the purpose of the package in Oracle’s Java platform; Google did not change the expressive content or message of the code; and use of the code in smartphones as opposed to other computer hardware did not constitute “new context.”  As many courts do, the Federal Circuit did not pay much heed to the second factor (nature of the copyrighted work), but emphasized under the third factor (amount of the work used), that the taking at issue here was more than was defensible.  For instance, there was no dispute that only 170 lines of code were needed to write in Java programming language, but Google copied 11,500 lines.

The court spent considerable time discussing the fourth factor (effect on the potential market), focusing on harm to actual markets for the copyrighted work, as well as the market for potential and derivative uses.  The court noted that the record clearly showed actual market harm in that Oracle’s copyrighted works had already been used in mobile devices, that Google directly competed with Oracle using Oracle’s own code, and that the existence of the free Android operating system caused significant damage to Oracle’s negotiating position with third parties like Amazon.  The district court also had failed to consider potential market harm, including licensing Java “for smartphones with increased processing capabilities”; importantly, the court observed that just because Oracle had never built its own smartphone device was irrelevant “because potential markets include licensing others to develop derivative works.”  Because factors one and four weighed heavily against fair use (factor two weighed in favor, and factor three was likely against), the Federal Circuit reversed and remanded for a trial on damages.

Even in industries unrelated to computers, mobile devices, software, and source code, the court’s broad pronouncement that “[t]here is nothing fair about taking a copyrighted work verbatim and using it for the same purpose and function as the original in a competing platform” is both powerful and beneficial to creators and licensors of copyrighted content.  CDAS submitted an amicus brief on behalf of DMLA and many other photographic and artistic trade associations – one of many amicus briefs in support of Oracle – which helped explain to the court of appeals the importance of licensing markets in fair use cases in general.  Ultimately CDAS supported the winning argument and contributed to the creation of appellate-level precedent that examines the fourth fair use factor (market harm and potential market harm), independent of the first factor (whether the use is transformative), and gives those two factors at least equal weight.