The US Supreme Court has sided with Google in the search company’s long-running legal fight with Oracle, declaring Android could use APIs from the Oracle-owned Java.
In Monday’s ruling, based on arguments from October 2020, the Supreme Court decided that Google’s use of API code from Java was “fair use.” The decision, which effectively overrules an earlier federal ruling that Google infringed on the code, allowing the search company to escape paying potentially billions to Oracle.
Google was accused of copying roughly 11,500 lines of code from Java SE’s API for use in its development of Android as a mobile platform. Oracle believed this was an infringement of its copyright, prompting lawsuits.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court states Google’s copying “only those lines of code that were needed to allow programmers to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program” was deemed “a fair use of that material as a matter of law.”
The copied lines of code were “part of a user interface’ that provides a way for programmers to access prewritten computer code through the use of simple commands,” the court reasoned. In effect, the code is different from other types used to instruct a computer to execute a task, a type of code that would have found more in Oracle’s favor.
“As part of an interface, the copied lines are inherently bound together with uncopyrightable ideas (the overall organization of the API) and the creation of a new creative expression (the code independently written by Google)” the ruling states. “Unlike many other computer programs, the value of the copied lines is in significant part derived from the investment of users (here computer programmers) who have learned the API’s system.”
“Given these differences, application of fair use here is unlikely to undermine the general protection that Congress provided for computer programs.”
The court also found that the lines of code Google copied was unsubstantial, with the 11,500 lines making up 0.4% of the entire API. Google had copied the lines only to allow the creation of new code for Android, “not because of their creativity or beauty.”
The 6-2 ruling had Justices Breyer, Roberts, Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh siding with Google. Justices Thomas and Alito dissented. Justice Barrett did not take part in the consideration or decision of the case.
The affair started in 2011, when Google was found to have used Oracle’s Java code within Android. The discovery led to the start of a series of lawsuits over the next decade. A repeated lawsuit took place in 2016 over the matter, seeking $8.8 billion from Google based on Android’s $21 billion profit to date at that time.
In 2018, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit agreed with Oracle in its claim Google’s use of the code wasn’t fair use, effectively reversing an opposite decision by a jury on the matter. At the time, the matter of determining damages was referred to a lower court, but a review of the Federal Circuit’s decision prompted a review by the Supreme Court.
The decision doesn’t end the lawsuit immediately, but it does effectively kill off any real chance of Oracle securing billions in damages from Google using its current copyright infringement argument.
Oracle and Google have yet to comment on the ruling.