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Supreme Court rules for Google and against Oracle in copyright case

UPDATED: Mon., April 5, 2021

This photo from Oct. 5, 2020, shows the Supreme Court in Washington. The Supreme Court sided with Google in an $8 billion copyright dispute with Oracle.   (Associated Press)
This photo from Oct. 5, 2020, shows the Supreme Court in Washington. The Supreme Court sided with Google in an $8 billion copyright dispute with Oracle.  (Associated Press)
By Robert Barnes and Jay Greene Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday said Google did not violate copyright law when it developed its Android mobile operating system using code from Oracle.

The court ruled 6 to 2 for Google in the highly anticipated ruling. The case was argued before Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined the court and she did not take part in the decision.

“We assume, for argument’s sake, that the material was copyrightable,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the majority. “But we hold that the copying here at issue nonetheless constituted a fair use. Hence, Google’s copying did not violate the copyright law.”

Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented.

Oracle has alleged in the decade-old case that Google infringed on copyrights related to using roughly 11,000 lines of code from the Java programming platform to develop Android.

Oracle, which acquired Java in 2010 when it bought Sun Microsystems, has sought $9 billion in damages, arguing that Google used the code without its permission.

Thomas said the company had a case. As a result of its copying, he wrote, Google “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. Despite this, the majority holds that this copying was fair use.”

In a blunt statement released after the decision, Oracle said Google “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.”

Google said it welcomed the decision. “The Supreme Court’s clear ruling is a victory for consumers, interoperability, and computer science,” said Kent Walker, Google’s senior vice president of global affairs. “The decision gives legal certainty to the next generation of developers whose new products and services will benefit consumers.”

Google argued that weaving that code into Android was protected under the “fair use” doctrine that allows the unlicensed use of copyright-protected work in circumstances, such as this case, when there is no other way to do it.

The case, which has broad ramifications for the software industry, has bounced around various courts over the years.

In 2016, jurors ruled Google’s use of the Java code was permitted as fair use under federal copyright law.

Two years later, a federal appeals court overturned that, ruling that there is “nothing fair about taking a copyrighted work verbatim and using it for the same purpose and function as the original in a competing platform.”

The dispute centers on the technical way software developers use application programming interfaces, or APIs.

That’s the computer code that enables websites and applications to work together. APIs also reduce the amount of basic computer coding developers need to write with each program.

Google won the support of several tech companies, including Microsoft, which argued in its own brief that the appeals court ruling in Oracle’s favor “risks upsetting long-settled expectations” that have allowed the tech industry to flourish by enabling programs to interoperate.

The Department of Justice supported Oracle.

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