The Supreme Court could have another opportunity to review an IP case decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

Last week Google filed a petition for certiorari seeking to overturn the Federal Circuit’s decision in Oracle America v. Google, which found that Oracle could copyright parts of the Java programming language. The lawsuit originated in California federal court in 2010; Oracle sued Google alleging that Google’s Android mobile operating system infringed Oracle’s patents and copyrights. Specifically, Oracle alleged that Google infringed 37 application programming interface (API) packages by replicating the structure, sequence, and organization of the overall code in its Android operating system. Judge Willam Alsup (who learned to code in Java for the trial) ultimately ruled that the API command structure could not be copyrighted under Section 102(b) of the Copyright Act because it is a “system or method of operation.”

In May the Federal Circuit reversed the district court’s copyrightability determination, ruling that the declaring code and structure, sequence, and organization of the API packages are entitled to copyright protection. According to the Federal Circuit, the district court had erred in finding the declaring code uncopyrightable based on merger and short phrase doctrines and in holding that the structure, sequence, and organization was an unprotectable method of operation. Rather, the opinion explained, Section 102(b) does not exclude systems or methods of operation from copyright protection and all elements of an original work are entitled to copyright protection as long as the author had multiple ways of expressing the underlying idea.

Because of the importance of this decision, most commentators anticipated Google’s petition, but it is unclear whether the Supreme Court will take up the issue. The question presented in Google’s petition is “[w]hether copyright protection extends to all elements of an original work of computer software, including a system or method of operation, that an author could have written in more than one way.” And it argues that the Federal Circuit’s decision would “allow copyright to be used as an end-run around the limits on patent protection, including this Court’s recent decisions on patent-eligibility.” Many believe that denial of certiorari could have serious consequences in the tech innovation. For one, Google argues that “early computer companies could have blocked vast amounts of technological development by claiming 95-year copyright monopolies over the basic building blocks of computer design and programming.”

Although the implications of this lawsuit are not clear yet, we may know more soon. The Supreme Court must respond by November 7, 2014.


–Emily Gabranski

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