November 19, 2013
Oracle America, Inc. v. Google, Inc.: The Only Nonliteral Aspects of Java APIs Protected Under Copyright Law Are the Ones Nobody Wants to Copy
In 1976, Congress revised the Copyright Act, extending protection to computer programs. The scope of this protection, however, has remained unclear. While all courts agree that source code is protected from direct copying, they disagree as to the extent of protection for nonliteral elements, such as the code’s structure, sequence, and organization. Oracle America, Inc. v. Google, Inc. is the latest case considering the issue and is consistent with a trend of decreased protection. Practically speaking, Oracle offers no protection for the nonliteral aspects of Oracle’s APIs. This weak level of protection results from computer programs’ functionality. Some might be tempted to extend the court’s reasoning to justify a more explicit distinction in copyright law, denying protection to the nonliteral elements of all computer programs. However, this conclusion would be contrary both to Oracle’s holding, which extends only to the APIs considered, and to the policy that the Copyright Act is designed to effectuate.