The case concerned about 12,000 lines of code that Google used to build Android that were copied from the Java application programming interface developed by Sun Microsystems, which Oracle acquired in 2010. It was seen as a landmark dispute over what types of computer code are protected under American copyright law.
Oracle had claimed at points to be owed as much as $9 billion, while Google claimed that its use of the code was covered under the doctrine of fair use and therefore not subject to copyright liability. Android is the most popular mobile operating system in the world.
Oracle sued Google over the use of its code and won its case twice before the specialized U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which held that the code in question was copyrightable and that Google’s use of it not protected by fair use.
The Supreme Court reversed the appeals court’s decision, though it did not definitively resolve whether the code in question was copyrightable.
Justice Stephen Breyer, who wrote the majority opinion in the case, agreed that Google’s use of the code was protected under fair use, noting that Google took “only what was needed to allow users to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program.”
“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,” Breyer added.
Breyer said that the top court assumed “for argument’s sake” that the code was copyrightable in the first place, but declined to issue a ruling on that question, saying that the holding on fair use was enough to decide the case.
“Given the rapidly changing technological, economic, and business-related circumstances, we believe we should not answer more than is necessary to resolve the parties’ dispute,” Breyer wrote.
Breyer was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented.
In his dissent, joined by Alito, Thomas chided the majority for skipping over the question of copyrightability.
“The Court wrongly sidesteps the principal question that we were asked to answer: Is declaring code protected by copyright? I would hold that it is,” Thomas wrote.
“The majority purports to save for another day the question whether declaring code is copyrightable. The only apparent reason for doing so is because the majority cannot square its fundamentally flawed fair-use analysis with a finding that declaring code is copyrightable,” Thomas added.
The case, one of the most significant of the term, featured a high-profile battle over competing visions of the future of software development.
“The long settled practice of reusing software interfaces is critical to modern software development,” Google’s attorney, the veteran Supreme Court lawyer Tom Goldstein, told the justices during arguments.
The case attracted attention in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. In a friend-of-the-court brief filed in the case, Microsoft argued that the federal appeals court decision “threatens modern paradigms of software development.”
The case was originally scheduled to be heard last term before it was delayed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Kent Walker, Google’s senior vice president for global affairs, said in a post on Twitter after the decision was released that “Today’s Supreme Court decision in Google v. Oracle is a big win for innovation, interoperability & computing.”
“Thanks to the country’s leading innovators, software engineers & copyright scholars for their support,” Walker wrote.
In a statement, Oracle said that “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 said.
The case is known as Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc., No. 18-956.