U.S. Supreme Court

Google's use of Java code was fair use, SCOTUS rules in Oracle copyright battle

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Google did not violate copyright law when it copied a portion of Java programming language for use in its Android platform for smartphones, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday in a 6-2 decision.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote the majority opinion holding that Google’s use of the code was fair use.

Google copied about 11,500 lines of code, out of 2.86 million lines, from the Java SE program owned by Oracle America Inc.’s predecessor, Sun Microsystems. About a hundred Google engineers then worked for more than three years to create the company’s Android platform software.

The Java programming language was familiar to programmers. Google’s hope was that developers familiar with the code would create more Android apps, making the smartphones more attractive to consumers.

The copied lines were part of a tool called an application programming interface, or API. The tool allows programmers to use prewritten code to build functions into their own programs, rather than write their own code from scratch.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit had ruled that the Java API was copyrightable and, in a later opinion, that Google’s use of the API was not fair use.

Breyer assumed that the material could be copyrighted and then ruled that the copying was nonetheless fair use.

“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 wrote.

“We reach the conclusion that in this case, where 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, Google’s copying of the Sun Java API was a fair use of that material as a matter of law,” he added.

Justice Clarence Thomas dissented in an opinion joined by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not take part in the decision.

Thomas said the majority decision is “wholly inconsistent” with the substantial copyright protection given to computer code by Congress.

He also noted that Google had at first sought a license to use Oracle’s programming library, then when the companies couldn’t agree, “Google simply copied verbatim 11,500 lines of code from the library. As a result, it erased 97.5% of the value of Oracle’s partnership with Amazon, made tens of billions of dollars, and established its position as the owner of the largest mobile operating system in the world. …

“Google’s use of that copyrighted code was anything but fair,” Thomas added.

The Washington Post, CNN and Politico are among publications with coverage.

The case is Google v. Oracle America Inc.

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