This week is the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)’s Copyright Week. Watch IFLA’s Policy and Advocacy blog for posts on the rights libraries and their users have under copyright right law. Recently we shared a post on Monday’s theme, the Public Domain. Today: Fair Use.
Fair use triumphs over proprietarianism. Consumers benefit from competition and advances in technology – as affirmed and supported by two recent Supreme Court cases from 2021.
In a 6-2 decision the U.S. Supreme Court rendered a significant confirmation that fair use is a friend of innovation, interoperability and good old-fashioned American creativity and ingenuity. While the decision in Oracle America, Inc. v. Google LLC, 141 S.Ct. 1183 (2021), disappointed some commentators and practitioners as it assumed “for argument’s sake” that Oracle’s Java SE Program was copyrightable; leaving no further guidance on the boundaries copyright protection for works of function such as a computer program, it was a victory for the continued application of fair use in the technology sector.
The decision follows other fair use and computer program decisions from the appellate courts such as Sony Computer Entertainment, Inc. v. Connectix Corp., 203 F.3d 596 (9th Cir. 2000), cert. denied 531 U.S. 871, that held reverse engineering requiring reproduction of the protected as well as unprotected elements of Sony’s gaming platform (PlayStation) a fair use. Connectix wanted to develop a platform that would allow users to play Sony games on a Macintosh. As the Ninth Circuit stated “because the Virtual Game Station is transformative and does not merely supplant the PlayStation console… Sony understandably seeks control over the market for devices that play games Sony produces or licenses. The copyright law, however, does not confer such a monopoly.” Id. at 607. The Sony decision followed the logic of a previous case involving another gaming giant, Sega Enterprise Ltd. and its Genesis console, Sega Enterprises Ltd. v. Accolade, Inc., 977 F.2d 1510 (9th Cir.1992). There the disassembly of the program that included reproducing protected as well as unprotected elements so that Accolade, Inc. could write its own code and create games that would be playable on Sony’s console was also deemed a fair use.
In the Oracle case the stakes were higher than the video game market, rather the development of an alternative cell phone platform. Like Accolade, Google wrote millions lines of new code, while it reproduced and incorporated 11,500 lines of code from the Sun Java SE Program. The Java code consisted of 2.86 lines of which 11,500 represented about 0.4%. Oracle claimed infringement. Google claimed fair use. The Court reiterated the purpose of U.S. copyright is to help society unleash its creative potential. That purpose is balanced against the exclusive rights the copyright law offers. The court acknowledged that “the exclusive rights it awards can sometimes stand in the way of others exercising their own creative powers.” Oracle America, Inc. v. Google LLC, 141 S.Ct. 1183, 1195 (2021). This review required “judicial balancing” and considered “significant changes in technology.” The use of the Java code was an efficient way to innovate a new product and this “use was consistent with that creative ‘progress’ that is the basic constitutional objective of copyright itself.” Id. Programmers would not need to learn an entirely new programming language as “programmers had already learned to work with the Sun Java API’s system, and it would have been difficult, perhaps prohibitively so, to attract programmers to build its Android smartphone system without them.” Id. at 1205. The Court found this purpose to be an “inherently transformative role that the reimplementation played in the new Android system.” Id. at 1204. Further, Google took “only what was needed.” Id. at 1209. The court also discussed how Sun’s mobile market was declining. This inability to compete in Android’s market “and the risk of creativity-related harms to the public … convince that this fourth factor… also weighs in favor of fair use.” Id. at 1208. Overall elements of all four fair use factors (purpose and character of use, nature of the work used, the amount taken and the market) favored fair use.
These cases represent support and encouragement of interoperative products and services, marketplace innovation and a recognition that the purpose of copyright is not only to reward copyright holders but to benefit society through new tools and technologies. Computer programs – while not unprotected by copyright – are works of function, a category in which fair use is more generously applied. Libraries produce works of function all the time, such as indexes, outline, bibliographies, lexicons, thesauri, finding aids, abstracts and reviews. Altogether, these open new avenues to work with and preserve content that people and institutions – including libraries – can further explore.
Professor Tomas A. Lipinski, J.D., LL.M., M.L.I.S., Ph.D.
School of Information Studies, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee