A recent ruling by the US Supreme Court has brought a decadeslong dispute between search engine giant Google and computer software company Oracle came to an end after justices overturned a federal circuit court’s decision that favored Oracle. The dispute had been ongoing for over 10 years.
The US Supreme Court ruled on Monday that Google is in the clear and had not committed any copyright violations when it used multiple lines of software code to create its Android operating system, granting Big Tech a landmark declaration.
The high court’s 6-2 ruling ultimately determined that Google’s use of more than 11,000 lines of coding that were copied from Oracle’s Java application programming interface (API) were covered under the doctrine 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,” Justice Stephen Breyer, who wrote the majority opinion in the ruling, noted. “Hence, Google’s copying did not violate the copyright law.”
“Google copied only what was needed to allow programmers to work in a different computing environment without discarding a portion of a familiar programming language,” Breyer highlighted, noting that about 11,500 lines of code were copied by the tech giant.
Breyer further indicated that the company’s purpose in coping the lines were to simply “create a different task-related system for a different computing environment (smartphones) and to create a platform – the Android platform – that would help achieve and popularize that objective.”
“The record demonstrates numerous ways in which reimplementing an interface can further the development of computer programs. Google’s purpose was therefore consistent with that creative progress that is the basic constitutional objective of copyright itself,” he continued.
The ruling was supported by Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Both Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented. Justice Amy Coney Barret did not take part in the ruling since she was not confirmed by the US Senate until after the case was heard.
The Supreme Court’s opinion brought to a close a dispute that had been ongoing for more than a decade, and one that spanned three trials and two separate appeals, according to The Verge.
In the dissent, which was written by Thomas, the pair of justices noted that the high court was creating an untenable distinction between implementing code and being able to declare it, explaining that “the result of this distorting analysis is an opinion that makes it difficult to imagine any circumstance in which declaring code will remain protected by copyright.”
“The 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,” Thomas added.
While Oracle declared the Monday ruling damaged the ability for other companies to compete, Google hailed the decision as a “big win for innovation, interoperability and computing.”
Following the decision, CNBC reported that Google would be moving to cease ties with Oracle’s finance software, instead opting to use services provided by SAP in May. However, it’s worth noting that the outlet did indicate the switch was not related to the Supreme Court ruling.