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Google wins legal duel with Oracle over Android’s use of Java code

The US Supreme Court ruled in favour of Google in decade-long litigation brought by Oracle, granting the Android owner “fair use” of Java API code it copied in developing the mobile operating system.

In a 6:2 verdict the US Supreme Court ruled on Monday (05 April) that Google did not violate the copyright law by copying Java API code owned by Oracle, overturning an earlier Appeals Court’s ruling in Oracle’s favour back in 2018. The Supreme Court sided with Google’s argument that the copying of the code was “fair use” when Android APIs were developed.

The case was first filed in 2010 by Oracle after it bought Sun Microsystems, who created the Java programming language, therefore assumed the ownership of the software. Oracle alleged that Google, having refused a commercial licence arrangement, copied over 11,000 lines of the most recognisable portions of the Java platform and used it in a competing platform (Android), therefore violated the copyright law that protects software.

Google counterargued that Oracle should not be given the right to assert copyrights on basic software commands which would weaken software interoperability, which in turn would weaken American competitiveness. An earlier district court in San Francisco sided with Google, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit overturned that ruling. In 2019 the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, despite the advice of the Justice Department against its intervention.

Google welcomed the ruling, saying that “it provides legal certainty to the next generation of developers whose new products and services would benefit consumers”, as Kent Walker, Google’s chief legal officer and senior vice president for global affairs was quoted by The Wall Street Journal. “Innovation happens by standing on each other’s shoulders and that is what’s going on here. These are tools we use every day, methods of operation in the everyday world. The idea of fair use is beneficial for everyone in the industry,” Walker said.

Oracle released a brief statement from Dorian Daley, the company’s Executive Vice President and General Counsel, calling Google “stealing”. “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,” the statement said.

The tech as well as the legal world is also divided over the case. Google has garnered a strong line-up of supporters, including heavyweights like Microsoft. Their argument, probably best summarised in this Electronic Frontier Foundation article, chiefly echoes that of Google that APIs are a “user interface”, and allowing its “fair use” of each other’s code is critical to encourage innovation and technology advancements.

Oracle’s support is narrower in scope though not less vocal. Florian Mueller, one of the most prominent commentators on patent and copyright issues in the mobile industry, was surprised by the ruling, and believed “today’s decision is bad news for software developers.” He reasoned that overreaching “fair use” ruling would encourage infringement. Any software companies that would have been ambitious enough to develop a platform of its own would either go for a “walled garden” approach (like Apple’s iOS ecosystem) or not make the investment at all.

Justice Clarence Thomas, one of the two Supreme Court Justices that disagreed with the ruling, said the assessment of the case in Google’s favour “is wholly inconsistent with the substantial protection Congress gave to computer code.”

It is worth noting that the Supreme Court ruling is narrow in its scope, made specifically on this case. The court has stated that it is not ruling on the copyrightability of API code in general. “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,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote. So technically this latest Supreme Court ruling neither validates nor invalidates the lower court’s belief that API code is copyrightable.

The full text of the Supreme Court syllabus (62 pages) can be found here.


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