The U.S. Supreme Court took Google’s side in an exhaustive, 11-year copyright case against Oracle on Monday. The two tech giants were feuding over software used on the Android platform.
Oracle claimed that Google unfairly used 11,500 lines of code it considered copyrighted. The company wanted $9 billion in compensation for Google using that code, but the tech giant pushed back and said its use of the code was covered under the fair use doctrine.
Fair use vs. copyright protection
Deciding which company was correct in its assessment has bounced all over the place. After a jury agreed with Google on the fair use defense, a Federal Circuit reversed that decision, concluding that Google’s copying was not a fair use as a matter of law. This most recent ruling that once again went in Google’s favor will no doubt have great implications for software developers down the road.
“The long settled practice of reusing software interfaces is critical to modern software development,” Tom Goldstein, Google’s attorney, told the justices in his argument.
The SCOTUS justices apparently agreed. In the majority opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that the “doctrine of ‘fair use’ is flexible and takes account of changes in technology. Computer programs differ to some extent from many other copyrightable works because computer programs always serve a functional purpose.”
The court said fair use plays an essential role when computer programs are being developed. Google’s use of code was “only what was needed to allow users to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program,” Breyer said.
“To the extent that Google used parts of the Sun Java API to create a new platform that could be readily used by programmers, its use was consistent with that creative ‘progress’ that is the basic constitutional objective of copyright itself.”
For most of the packages in its new Application Programming Interface, Breyer noted that Google programmers did copy code from the Sun Java API, but they also wrote separate “declaring code” to make its Android software function correctly.
Breyer said the top court assumed “for argument’s sake” that the code was copyrightable in the first place, but it declined to issue a ruling on that question. He asserted that tying the ruling to fair use was enough to decide the case.
The big get bigger
As you might expect, Oracle was anything but happy with the decision.
“The Google platform just got bigger and market power greater. The barriers to entry 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,” Oracle’s Dorian Daley, Executive Vice President and General Counsel, said in a statement.