The Supreme Court on Monday sided with Google (GOOG, GOOGL) in a $9 billion copyright fight with Oracle (ORCL) over software in billions of Android phones, in a ruling the Electronic Frontier Foundation hailed as “a fantastic win” for smaller companies trying to innovate.
In the 6-2 opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer, the court found that Google did not violate copyright law when it used portions of Oracle’s Oracle’s Java application program interface to build the Android operating system. Siding with Google, the opinion found the copying constituted “fair use,” meaning Google didn’t have to get Oracle’s permission before using it.
“The fair use analysis is really going to set a precedent that’s going to shape serious case law for many, many years to come,” Corynne McSherry, legal director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which filed an amicus brief on Google’s behalf, told Yahoo Finance.
“It’s really a fantastic win,” McSherry said, adding that the ruling means “other small companies who are trying to figure out ‘can I do this creative new innovative thing where I need to maybe build on somebody else’s work?’ will have more comfort that ultimately what they’re doing will be found to be lawful.”
The case focused on application programming interfaces (APIs), lines of computer code that, as Google explains, allow software applications, platforms, and devices to talk to one another.
‘Profound consequences for innovation’
In the decade-long lawsuit, Oracle claimed Google violated copyright law by using the Java language’s APIs to build Android, the world’s most popular operating system for mobile phones. Google countered by saying the copying was fair use, asking the court to overturn an appeals court that favored Oracle, which was seeking $9 billion in damages.
The case attracted dozens of amicus briefs supporting both sides, including one from fellow tech giant Microsoft (MSFT) — which came out in support of Google and noted that the issue presented by the case has “profound consequences for innovation in today’s computer industry.”
In a statement, Kent Walker, Google’s SVP of Global Affair, said the court’s ruling was 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. We are very grateful for the support from a wide range of organizations, from the National Consumers League to the American Library Association, as well as from established companies, start-ups, and the country’s leading software engineers and copyright scholars.”
Dorian Daley, Oracle’s executive vice president and general counsel, however, said that the court’s decision simply made Google’s platform bigger and more powerful.
“They stole Java and spent a decade litigating as only a monopolist can,” Daley said in a statement. “This behavior is exactly why regulatory authorities around the world and in the United States are examining Google’s business practices.”
According to the justices, Google’s use of the Java API constituted fair use, because “The copied lines of code are part of a ‘user interface’ that provides a way for programmers to access prewritten computer code through the use of simple commands.”
In its decision, which was supported by Breyer, Chief Justice John Roberts, as well as Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Brett Kavanaugh, and Neil Gorsuch, the court found that the Java API was different from other types of computer code.
They noted that “the copied lines are inherently bound together with uncopyrightable ideas (the overall organization of the API) and the creation of new creative expression (the code independently written by Google).”
According to Professor Tyler Ochoa of the Santa Clara University School of Law’s High Tech Law Institute, the court’s decision doesn’t mean that software programs can be copied wholesale, but rather that the implementation of application software interfaces can be used under fair use.
“They very much emphasized the distinction between declaring code and implementing code, and suggested that declaring code was subject, at a minimum, to far less protection than implementing code,” Ochoa explained.
“Computer programs are still copyrightable, the code for computer programs is still copyrightable,” he said. “What the court held is that the structure of a user interface, might be able to be copied by someone who is reimplementing that interface in a different way.”
The high court decision only puts an end to one legal battle for Google, which faces pending antitrust lawsuits, including one from the Justice Department and two others from dozens of state attorneys general.
-Additional reporting by Erin Fuchs
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