Technology

Supreme Court sides with Google in copyright fight against Oracle

The Supreme Court on Monday sided with Google in the company’s high-stakes intellectual property fight with Oracle, finding that the search giant’s copying of certain Java lines to develop its Android platform constituted fair use.

In a 6-2 ruling, the justices found that Google’s use of roughly 11,500 lines of code was lawful since the amount was relatively minuscule and because Google programmers used the language as virtual building blocks to develop new and transformative applications.

The court concluded that Oracle cannot claim copyright over these application programming interfaces (APIs), which let different applications communicate.

“We reach the conclusion that in this case, where Google reimplemented a user interface, taking only what was needed to allow users to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program, Google’s copying of the Sun Java API was a fair use of that material as a matter of law,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the majority opinion.

Breyer was joined by Justices John Roberts, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented.

Judge Amy Coney Barrett, who had not yet been sworn in when the case was argued in October, did not participate in the decision.

The battle between Google and Oracle over the use of the code in Android devices has been ongoing for more than a decade in several cases.

A 2014 federal court decision had ruled that APIs could be subject to copyright.

Four years later, the court ruled that Google’s implementation of the code was not fair use. Monday’s decision overturns that ruling.

Google celebrated Monday’s decision, calling it a victory for “consumers, interoperability, and computer science.”

“The decision gives legal certainty to the next generation of developers whose new products and services will benefit consumers,” Google’s senior vice president of global affairs, Kent Walker, said in a statement.

Oracle had argued that Google’s practices, if allowed to continue, would ultimately harm the software industry by not rewarding developers making unique code. The company had said Google should be made to pay $9 billion for the alleged violation.

In a 19-page dissent, Thomas, joined by Alito, criticized the majority opinion both in form and substance. The two staunchly conservative justices would have handed Oracle a win based in part on a finding that Congress previously made clear its intent to protect computer code under copyright law.

The dissenting justices also countered that Oracle had made a stronger showing under the so-called “fair use” legal test which, according to the majority, had made it lawful for Google to use the code at issue.

“The majority has used fair use to eviscerate Congress’ considered policy judgment,” Thomas wrote.

In a statement Monday, a spokesperson for Oracle claimed again that Google “stole” Java.

“The Google platform just got bigger and market power greater,” Deborah Hollinger said. “This behavior is exactly why regulatory authorities around the world and in the United States are examining Google’s business practices.”

Updated at 11:56 a.m.

Tags Amy Coney Barrett Brett Kavanaugh Clarence Thomas Elena Kagan Intellectual property Neil Gorsuch Samuel Alito Sonia Sotomayor Stephen Breyer Supreme Court case

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