Supreme Court Sides with Google in Copyright Battle After the Tech Giant’s Decade Long Battle Against Oracle

Posted by Jessica Moran.

On Monday, April 5th, 2021, the Supreme Court, in a 6-2 opinion, ruled in favor of Alphabet Inc.’s Google in a decade-long, eight-billion-dollar copyright dispute with Oracle America Inc. The dispute arose over Google’s usage of parts of Oracle’s Java Advanced Programming Interface (API) code in their Android operating system (OS) on more than two billion Google devices worldwide. Google’s Android OS was released following Google’s creation of millions of lines of computer code, with 11,330 of those lines coming from Oracle’s Java platform. The building of this computer code using some of Oracle’s API code came into question—Oracle believed that Google illegally copied the over 11,000 lines of its Java API code to develop their Android OS. In contrast, Google thought that copying some of the Java API code was “fair use” under copyright law. “Fair use” is any copying of copyrighted material that can be done without permission from the owner because it is done for a “limited” and “transformative” purpose. Thus, the question of the case became the following: Did Google’s copying of the code constitute fair use, or did it violate the copyright law?

Google argued that its behavior is common practice in the industry and allows for technical progress. Furthermore, Google stood firm in its belief that copyright laws do not protect functional, noncreative computer code. In this case, Google believed the lines of the Java API that they copied were purely functional and could not be written any other way. On the other hand, Oracle said that Google’s actions were complete plagiarism—In a statement to the press, Oracle said, “The Google platform just got bigger and market power greater…They stole Java and spent a decade litigating as only a monopolist can. This behavior is exactly why regulatory authorities…are examining Google’s business practices” (Mickle). Decisively ruling in favor of Google, the Supreme Court held that the copying constituted fair use and did not violate the copyright law since the amount of code was relatively small and programmers at Google simply used the language as “building blocks” to develop new applications.

Thus, Google’s use of that code was “fair use” as a matter of law, and Oracle cannot claim copyright because, according to Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, “…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” (Kruzel, and Rodrigo). Breyer’s opinion was joined by Justices Roberts, Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh, but Justices Thomas and Alito dissented. Thomas and Alito felt that “Oracle’s code…is copyrightable, and Google’s use of that copyrighted code was anything but fair” and believed that “Google decimated Oracle’s market and created a mobile operating system…earning tens of billions of dollars every year” (Mickle). Nevertheless, Google and other tech giants like IBM and Microsoft celebrated the ruling. Google’s Chief Legal Officer, Kent Walker, found the decision to be a victory for “consumers, interoperability, and computer science” (Kruzel, and Rodrigo).

While there is opposition to this decision, the Supreme Court remains confident in its decision, with Justice Breyer stating that this decision does not overturn earlier cases involving fair use, like those relating to ‘knockoff’ products, journalistic writings, parodies, and more. Instead, the Supreme Court’s decision is based, in part, on concern that a ruling against Google would set back future software development and promote costly duplication of code. In other words, ruling in favor of Oracle might have stifled future software development and innovation. The Supreme Court did question Google’s right to copy some of the code, and Google itself did not dispute the fact that its software engineers used over 11,000 lines of the Java software code, but ultimately, the inclusion of such code into their Android OS constituted “fair use” of copyrighted material. Furthermore, the court found that “Google’s copying amounted to just 0.4% of the 2.86 million lines of Java API computer code” (Mickle). Despite the seemingly unfavorable admission to copying the code, Google does provide the Android OS to smartphone manufacturers for free and allows it to be used under an open-source license.

As of this case, the Supreme Court is not yet willing to answer the following legal issue: whether API code is eligible for copyright protection. Given the broad nature of such a question and the rapidly changing business technology environment, the Supreme Court did not wish to answer anything beyond the dispute at hand. In this case, the Supreme Court felt that Google’s fair use argument was the stronger case being that fair use is designed to prevent copyrights from hindering new software and product development.

For more information, the case is Google LLC v. Oracle America Inc., 18-956.

Jessica is majoring in accounting and management at the Stillman School of Business, Seton Hall University, Class of 2023.