WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court was embroiled in a decade-long battle between tech companies Google and Oracle on Monday. The search giant was allowed to use thousands of lines of code to create the Android platform for mobile devices.
Texas-based company Oracle sued Google in 2010, alleging its developers dovetailed software routines in Oracle’s Java programming language to create Android – the operating system that Google says supports 2.5 billion mobile devices worldwide. Oracle moved $ 9 billion in the lawsuit, which has been in federal court for years.
However, in a 6-2 statement from Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, the court found that the practice falls under the “fair use” rule of copyright law.
Breyer was accompanied by Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Associate Justice Clarence Thomas disagreed and was assisted by Associate Justice Samuel Alito. Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not participate in the case, which was discussed prior to joining the Supreme Court.
“The copying from Google was not against the copyright law,” wrote Breyer.
Breyer said that since computer programs are “mostly functional,” it is difficult to apply traditional copyright concepts. But that is exactly what the court was trying to do, he wrote.
“In doing so, we have not changed the nature of these concepts,” he wrote. “We’re not overturning or modifying our previous fair use cases – for example, cases involving counterfeit products, journalistic writings, and parodies,” he wrote. “Rather, we recognize here that the application of a copyright doctrine such as fair use has long been a collaborative effort by lawmakers and courts, and that we believe Congress intended to continue doing so.”
In his dissent, Thomas wrote that the Court’s analysis of fair use “is completely inconsistent with the substantial protections that Congress has given computer code”.
“The Oracle code at issue here is copyrighted,” continued Thomas, “and Google’s use of that copyrighted code has been far from fair.”
During the hearing in October, most judges appeared to question Google’s right to copy part of the language, but also raised concerns that a decision against Google could affect future software development through costly duplication.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, and others have told the court that a decision in favor of Oracle would hinder software development.
Technical fight:Supreme Court rules copyright disputes between Google and Oracle
Arguments:The Supreme Court is grappling with the copyright battle between Google and Oracle
“Breaking the safe may be the only way to get the money you want, but that doesn’t mean you can,” Roberts said at the time.
Closely watched in the tech industry and referred to by some as the “copyright lawsuit of the decade,” Google has not denied that its engineers used approximately 11,500 lines of Java software code – a tiny fraction of the 15 million lines in its Android software. However, it has told the court that its inclusion amounted to a “fair use” of copyrighted material.
Fair use is a legal doctrine that allows limited use of copyrighted material for specific purposes, generally research or criticism.
Google is making the Android system available to smartphone manufacturers free of charge and allowing others to use it under an open source license. While Google doesn’t charge any fees for the platform, Android has generated billions of dollars for the company in advertising.
The case has been pending for years and was brought to the Supreme Court in 2015 when judges refused to hear it. A federal appeals court ruled against Google in 2018, overturning an earlier decision and ordering damages proceedings.
Contributor: Richard Wolf