The US Court of Appeals ruled last Monday the 12th of May that software source code can qualify for copyright protection in certain circumstances.
In 2012, a district court held that Google could legitimately copy the function of computer code owned by Oracle because it did not copy the “specific code” that Oracle had used to achieve that functionality. It is an established principle of copyright law that it is only expression of an idea that is copyrightable, and not the idea itself. The district court held that the “declaring code” is not copyrightable because the idea and the expression have merged.
Whilst Google admitted that it had copied the underlying “declaring code” that is the basis for 37 of Oracle’s Java application programming interfaces (APIs), it claimed that only the overlying “implementing code” which it created to ensure the interoperability of the technology with its Android system actually qualified for copyright protection.
Oracle argued that its Java API software packages were in fact copyrightable because they “are expressive and could have been written and organised in any number of ways to achieve the same functions”. The US Court of Appeals overturned the decision of the district court, and held that “a set of commands to instruct a computer to carry out desired operations may contain expression that is eligible for copyright protection.” Moreover, it agreed with Oracle that “an original work – even one that serves a function – is entitled to copyright protection as long as the author had multiple ways to express the underlying idea.”
The Court of Appeals went on to dismiss Google’s additional argument that patent protection and not copyright protection is the most appropriate intellectual property right in respect of software. In this regard the court recalled that the US Supreme Court has established that there is nothing in US law to prevent a patentable creation from qualifying for software protection.
Although the US Court of Appeals found in favour of Oracle’s arguments, the district court has yet to rule on whether Google’s infringement of Oracle’s copyright is excusable as “fair use”.