People involved in copyright and coding have been closely following the litigation between Google and Oracle regarding Google’s use of some code to build the Android operating systems. On April 5, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court resolved a decade long court battle between Google and Oracle. In Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc., Oracle sued Google, alleging that Google committed copyright infringement by copying snippets of Oracle’s programming language to build its Android operating system. Oracle claimed that Google’s use of their software development would “ruin the software industry by making it so that developers could not be rewarded for their work when others used their code.” Google clapped back that if Oracle won the lawsuit, it would ruin the software industry and would create copyright barriers for developers in the form of paying licensing fees and reinventions for simple tasks that are only used as building blocks. In a 6-2 majority ruling, the Court ruled in Google’s favor, reversing the Federal Court of Appeals ruling in favor of Oracle.
Google’s declared the response to the decision as “a victory for consumers, interoperability, and computer science. The decision gives legal certainty to the next generation of developers whose new products and services will benefit consumers.” Microsoft, Mozilla and IBM filed briefs supporting Google’s position.
The software that Google and Oracle battled over was the application programming interfaces (API), which are building blocks to be used on larger programs. The law generally treats computer programs as copyrightable, but Google argued APIs are different since they do not involve heavily creative ideas. Google relied on the Fair Use doctrine, which in the United States permits the limited use of copyrighted material without first having to acquire permission from the copyright holder. Fair use is a limitation of U.S. copyright law that is intended to balance the interests of copyright owners with the public interest by allowing certain limited uses that might otherwise be considered infringement as a defense to copyright infringement claims.
Justice Stephen Breyer wrote the majority opinion, stating that it is difficult to apply traditional copyright concepts when dealing with software programming. Breyer’s opinion began with the assumption that the APIs may be copyrightable, and then applied the factors to determine fair use. The Court conclude that Google’s use of the APIs had met all the factors, and that Google used “only what was needed to allow users to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program”.
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