Supreme Court Rules Google Didn’t Violate Copyright Law When It Used Oracle Code for Android

April 5, 2021 Updated: April 5, 2021

Google didn’t infringe Oracle’s copyright when it used that company’s programming code in the Android cellphone operating system, the Supreme Court ruled April 5 in overturning a lower court ruling that favored Oracle.

Android is the most popular cellphone operating system in the world.

Oracle had been seeking $9 billion in damages in the decade-old litigation between the tech companies that could have changed the rules of the road for the software industry.

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote the 6–2 decision for the high court in Google LLC v. Oracle America Inc., court file 18-956. The case came to the court on appeal from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

Justice Clarence Thomas filed a dissenting opinion in which he accused the court majority of shying away from crucial legal issues in the case; Justice Samuel Alito joined the dissent. Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who wasn’t yet a member of the court when the case was heard telephonically on Oct. 7, 2020, didn’t participate in the case.

Austin, Texas-based Oracle America Inc., owns the copyright for Java SE, a computer program that uses the popular Java computer programming language. Google, without permission, copied a portion of that program that enables a programmer to call up prewritten software that, together with the computer’s hardware, will carry out a large number of specific tasks, Breyer wrote for the court.

About 100 Google engineers worked more than three years to create Google’s Android platform software, tailoring the Android platform to smartphone technology. To build the platform, Google wrote millions of lines of new code. Because Google wanted millions of programmers, familiar with Java, to be able easily to work with its new Android platform, it also copied code from the Java SE program.

The copied lines of code are part of a tool called an Application Programming Interface, or API, Breyer wrote, explaining that an API was a tool that “allow[s] programmers to use … prewritten code to build certain functions into their own programs, rather than write their own code to perform those functions from scratch.”

Lower courts considered whether Java SE’s owner could copyright the portion that Mountain View, California-based Google copied, and if so, whether Google’s copying nonetheless constituted a “fair use” of that material, which would free Google from copyright liability.

The Federal Circuit ruled for Oracle, finding Google’s copying wasn’t a “fair use.”

The Supreme Court disagreed, finding that Google’s copying constituted a fair use and that it wasn’t necessary to reach the question of whether the copied material itself was copyrightable.

“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.

“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,” he wrote.

Oracle reacted to the ruling, saying it means “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,” Oracle said in a statement. “This behavior is exactly why regulatory authorities around the world and in the United States are examining Google’s business practices.”

In his dissent, Thomas chastised the court majority for not addressing the copyright issue directly.

He noted that Android founder Andrew Rubin “understood that the declaring code was copyrighted, so Google sought a custom license from Oracle. At least four times between 2005 and 2006, the two companies attempted to negotiate a license, but they were unsuccessful … Google simply decided to use Oracle’s code anyway.

Instead of creating its own declaring code—as Apple and Microsoft chose to do—Google copied verbatim 11,500 lines of Oracle’s declaring code and arranged that code exactly as Oracle had done. It then advertised Android to device manufacturers as containing ‘Core Java Libraries,’” and was sued by Oracle.

The Supreme 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.”

Google welcomed the new court ruling.

“Today’s Supreme Court decision in Google v. Oracle is a big win for innovation, interoperability & computing,” Kent Walker, the company’s senior vice president for global affairs, wrote on Twitter.