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Authors: Holton, Nicholas A.
Keywords: copyright of API
Google, Inc. v. Oracle America, Inc.
Issue Date: 2016
Publisher: Loyola University New Orleans College of Law
Citation: 62 Loy. L. Rev. 189
Abstract: The United States Supreme Court delivered several momentous decisions in the 2014–2015 term, but perhaps the most controversial denial of a writ for certiorari came from a Federal Circuit decision with significant potential effects for the future of technology. The legal issue arose from extensive litigation between two technology colossi, Oracle America, Inc. (Oracle) and Google, Inc. (Google). Oracle alleged numerous patent and copyright infringement claims against Google. Judge William Alsup in the Northern District of California heard arguments on the copyrightability of the Application Programming Interface (API) in the popular Java platform. In a well-informed, fact-based decision, Judge Alsup held certain elements of the Java API to be uncopyrightable. The online technology community praised Judge Alsup’s opinion as “a textbook for future cases involving intellectual property rights and computer programming languages.” The celebration was premature. A three-judge panel of the Federal Circuit reversed the decision and held the elements copyrightable. The Supreme Court’s denial leaves computer programmers in a state of confusion regarding the application of copyright law to software interfaces. More importantly for the field of intellectual property law, the denial relegates Judge Alsup’s opinion to the dustbin of history. This Note pays homage to Judge Alsup for his efforts to master computer programming concepts. Like the law, computer programs are logical sets of rules written in technical language. Like lawyers, computer programmers master the language through years of diligent practice. Lawyers and judges use the legal language to make sense of ambiguous fact patterns in order to render logical decisions. Unlike the human actions and circumstances described in the typical fact pattern, however, computer programs are never ambiguous. Thus, when elements of a computer program underlie a legal issue, the basis for the legal calculus is semantic. In other words, the judge acts as a translator. Therefore, a judge’s mastery of programming languages is critical to proper disposition of a legal issue involving computer program elements. This Note proves the above thesis with three observations. First, Judge Alsup reached his legal conclusions by thoroughly explaining the programming concepts at issue and stressing the limited precedential value of his opinion. Second, the Federal Circuit reversed all of Judge Alsup’s legal conclusions in an opinion heavily based on legal reasoning and lacking in clear understanding of the programming concepts at issue. Third, the Supreme Court failed to recognize the true import of the Federal Circuit reversal. Today’s law students cannot solve tomorrow’s legal issues without technology law jurisprudence of pedagogical value. The Supreme Court denied today’s law students a “textbook for future cases,” while leaving undisturbed an esoteric review of dated copyright jurisprudence. Part II of this Note introduces the litigants and provides a thorough explanation of the computer programming concepts underlying the Java platform. Part III provides a background to copyright law and its application to computer programs. Part IV outlines the Federal Circuit reversal of the district court. Part V crystallizes the purpose of this Note by comparing the approaches of Judge Alsup and the Federal Circuit panel.
ISSN: 0192-9720
Appears in Collections:Law Review

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