The Supreme Court rules today with Google against Oracle in a long-running copyright dispute over the software used in Android, the mobile operating system. The court’s decision was 6-2. Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who was not yet confirmed by the Senate when the case was argued in October, did not participate in the case.
Supreme Court Rules In Google’s Favor
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. 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 Google’s use of the code was not fair use.
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The Supreme Court reversed the appeals court’s decision. 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 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.
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 was originally scheduled to be heard last term before it was delayed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.