A man walks up the steps on the first day of a new term at the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, October 7, 2019Photo: SAUL LOEB / AFP (Getty Images)
The U.S. Supreme Court has sided with Google over Oracle in one of the highest-profile copyright disputes to ever hit Silicon Valley.
On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that Google didn’t violate copyright law when it used around 11,000 lines of Oracle-created code when developing its Android system back in 2005. The ruling stands to have substantial implications for software development in the U.S.
The court held in a 6-2 decision that Google’s use of Oracle’s Java application programming interface (or API) fell under the legal definition of fair use.
“We assume, for argument’s sake, that the material was copyrightable. But we hold that the copying here at issue nonetheless constituted a fair use. Hence, Google’s copying did not violate the copyright law,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the court’s opinion.
Oracle, which previously sought $9 billion in damages, doubled down on its stance that Google ”stole” its snippets of code in a statement regarding the ruling.
“The Google platform just got bigger and market power greater—the barriers to entry higher and the ability to compete lower,” Oracle said. “This behavior is exactly why regulatory authorities around the world and in the United States are examining Google’s business practices.”
Google, meanwhile, has another take, telling CNN that the court’s decision is “a victory for consumers, interoperability, and computer science.”
Justice Breyer pointed out in the opinion that Google’s copies of the original snippets of Oracle code only included chunks “that were needed to allow programmers to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program,” which falls under the definition of fair use.
Breyer went on to write that the definition of “fair use” in the tech sector is pretty “flexible.” Computer programs, he explained, differ from many other kinds of copyrightable works because these programs “ always serve a functional purpose.” Holding exclusive ownership over a snippet of code, in this case, has a high potential to “trigger negative consequences,” like hampering innovation in the computer science sphere.
Allowing Oracle to gatekeep its API in this case, he went on, “would risk harm to the public,” because it would limit the creativity for programmers moving forward—especially because APIs are notoriously difficult to build from the ground up.
“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.
Generally, the law does treat certain kinds of computer programs like games or software bundles as well within the boundaries of copyright law. But Google spent years arguing that APIs should be treated differently: APIs, the company argued, are little more than a series of building blocks that allow different pieces of (copyrightable) software to communicate together. Keeping APIs open means building a future where every company’s software—not just Oracle’s—is more interoperable.
Justice Clarence Thomas, who authored a dissenting opinion joined by Justice Samuel Alito, wrote that the court defining a “transformative” work as it pertains to software as a “use that will help others ‘create new products’” effectively “eviscerates copyright.”
“By copying Oracle’s work, Google decimated Oracle’s market and created a mobile operating system now in over 2.5 billion actively used devices, earning tens of billions of dollars every year. If these effects on Oracle’s potential market favor Google, something is very wrong with our fair use analysis,” Thomas wrote.
It’s worth noting that the Google-Oracle bombshell isn’t the only major tech case that the Supreme Court tackled at the start of the week. SCOTUS also directed a federal appeals court on Monday to toss a lawsuit over whether former President Donald Trump violated the First Amendment by blocking his critics on his (now defunct) Twitter account.