In a case originally filed in 2010, Oracle (ticker: ORCL) claimed that Google had developed the Android operating system software, which has roots in the Java programming language, without a Java license, copying key code known as application programming interfaces, or APIs. The code allows various programs to talk to one another.
Java had been developed at Sun Microsystems, which Oracle acquired in 2010.
Oraclo sought monetary damages and requested that Google stop using the allegedly infringing code. Google conceded that it used the code, but said that its usage met the “fair use” provision of U.S. copyright law. Google won the case at the district court level, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled in Oracle’s favor in 2018.
In a 6-2 decision, the high court on Monday reversed the appeals court, ruling that Google’s use of the Java APIs met the copyright law requirements for fair use.
“Google’s copying of the Java SE API, which included only those lines of code that were needed to allow programmers to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program, was a fair use of that material as a matter of law,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the majority opinion.
Justice Breyer wrote that to determine whether Google’s limited copying of the API constitutes fair use, the court considered four factors laid out in the Copyright Act’s fair use provision: “the purpose and character of the use; the nature of the copyrighted work; the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.”
Bryers writes that the “nature of the work” provision favors fair use, given that the code involves a user interface and not the code actually instructing a computer to execute a task.
On the “purpose and character” test, the court found that “Google copied only what was needed to allow programmers to work in a different computing environment without discarding a portion of a familiar programming language,” and again favoring fair use.
As for the “amount and sustainability” test, Bryers notes in the opinion that the 11,500 lines of under dispute “are only 0.4 percent of the entire API at issue, which consists of 2.86 million total lines.” He added that “Google copied these lines not because of their creativity or beauty but because they would allow programmers to bring their skills to a new smartphone computing environment.”
And on the “potential market” test, Breyer wrote that “the record showed that Google’s new smartphone platform is not a market substitute for Java SE. The record also showed that Java SE’s copyright holder would benefit from the reimplementation of its interface into a different market.”
A dissenting opinion, written by Justice Clarence Thomas and joined by Justice Samuel Alito, says that the majority ignored the intention of the Copyright Act.
“The Court reaches this unlikely result in large part because it bypasses the antecedent question clearly before us: Is the software code at issue here protected by the Copyright Act?” Justice Thomas wrote. “The majority purports to assume, without deciding, that the code is protected. But its fair-use analysis is wholly inconsistent with the substantial protection Congress gave to computer code. By skipping over the copyrightability question, the majority disregards half the relevant statutory text and distorts its fair-use analysis. Properly considering that statutory text, Oracle’s code at issue here is copyrightable, and Google’s use of that copyrighted code was anything but fair.”
Oracle expressed disappointment with the court’s decision. “The Google platform just got bigger and market power greater,” the company said in a statement. “The barriers to entry [got] higher and the ability to compete lower. They stole Java and spent a decade litigating as only a monopolist can. This behavior is exactly why regulatory authorities around the world and in the United States are examining Google’s business practices.”
Not surprisingly. Google was pleased with the decision.
“The Supreme Court’s clear ruling is a victory for consumers, interoperability, and computer science,” Kent Walker, Google’s senior vice president for global affairs, said in a statement. “The decision gives legal certainty to the next generation of developers whose new products and services will benefit consumers.”