In a decision released today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Google in a decade-long dispute with Oracle that has profound implications for the software industry.
Oracle alleged that Google had infringed its copyright when it copied some elements of code from Java, which is owned by Oracle, to build its Android operating system. The two companies have been locked in litigation over the issue for a decade.
In a 6-to-2 outcome, the Supreme Court’s justices rejected a lower court decision in Oracle’s favor, ruling instead that Google’s copying of the pieces of code known as application programming interfaces, or APIs, was fair use. The fair use doctrine is designed to stop copyright protections from stifling innovation.
The ruling is a huge setback for Oracle, which had claimed up to $9 billion in damages for breach of its intellectual property. In a statement, it reiterated its claim that Google “stole” Java and urged antitrust authorities around the world to pursue their scrutiny of the Alphabet unit’s economic dominance. “The Google platform just got bigger and market power greater. The barriers to entry higher and the ability to compete lower.”
Google said the court’s opinion was “a victory for consumers, interoperability and computer science,” and that it “gives legal certainty to the next generation of developers whose new products and services will benefit consumers.”
The case had been closely watched within the software industry because copying of APIs, which are key blocks of code that allow different software applications to talk to one another and exchange information, is a common practice amongst developers. Had the court ruled in Oracle’s favor, it could have unleashed a tsunami of litigation as other companies sought to extract payment for use of their own APIs.
The author of the majority opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer, wrote that Google had copied “only what was needed to allow users to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program.” Allowing Oracle to have a “lock” on its software in this instance, the opinion concluded, “…would interfere with, not further, copyright’s basic creativity objectives.”
Google wrote millions of lines of code to create the Android platform, which now powers billions of devices worldwide. The dispute centered on around 11,500 lines of code that were from Java.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Neil Gorsuch, Elena Kagan, Brett Kavanaugh and Sonia Sotomayor also backed Google. Justices Samuel Alioto and Clarence Thomas dissented, while Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not take part in the deliberations because the case was heard before she joined the court following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg last year.
In the dissenting opinion, Justice Thomas argued that Oracle’s code was copyrightable and that Google’s use of it in Android “was anything but fair”. The opinion also noted that Google had gone ahead and copied the code only after failing to reach an agreement with Oracle on licensing it.
The outcome of the case leaves a crucial question unanswered: whether API code is in fact eligible for copyright protection at all. In the majority opinion, Justice Breyer made clear the court was not willing to take on that debate. Instead, it worked on the assumption that Oracle’s code was in fact eligible for protection. If more cases involving APIs end up being litigated, it may not be long before the Supreme Court’s justices find themselves having to tackle that bigger issue too.