Supreme Court sides with Google over Oracle in case of Android code

The highest court in the US finds that Google's use of Java SE code constituted "fair use of that material."

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Android's use of Java code constituted fair use, the Supreme Court ruled. 

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The US Supreme Court has ruled for Google in the battle between the search giant and Oracle over the architecture of Google's Android operating system. In a 6-2 decision published Monday and written by Justice Stephen Breyer, the court ruled that "Google's copying of the Java SE API, which included 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 a fair use of that material as a matter of law." 

At issue was Oracle's claim that Google copied about 11,500 lines of Java code from Sun Microsystems in creating its popular Android OS. Oracle acquired Sun in 2010, with the company later suing Google for almost $9 billion in damages over illegally using that software.

Google claimed that its use of the software was allowed as "fair use," with the company winning the first major legal battle in this case in 2016 only to have an appeals court overturn the decision two years later. After Google's repeated petitioning, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case last year.  

"Today's Supreme Court decision in Google v. Oracle is a big win for innovation, interoperability & computing," Kent Walker, Google's senior vice president of global affairs, said on Twitter following the news. "Thanks to the country's leading innovators, software engineers & copyright scholars for their support."

Watch this: Google: How it got so big

Dorian Daley, Oracle's executive vice president and general counsel, said that Google's win is just the latest example of the search giant's power.

"The Google platform just got bigger and market power greater. The barriers to entry higher and the ability to compete lower. They stole Java and spent a decade litigating as only a monopolist can," Daley wrote in a statement posted to Oracle's website. "This behavior is exactly why regulatory authorities around the world and in the United States are examining Google's business practices."

The decision will ripple throughout the tech industry, not only because the case was a rare bout between two tech giants on the biggest legal stage in the world. But it also affects how companies can go about developing software based on what code is fair to use or not. Google argued a ruling against the company would stunt innovation. Oracle had called Google's argument "backwards," balking at the idea that weaker intellectual property rights could boost creativity. 

When the Supreme Court heard arguments in October, Google attorney Thomas Goldstein argued that Google only used parts of code it couldn't re-create when it was building Android. He said they work "like a key fits into a lock." He likened the code to "connective tissue" that shouldn't be protected. 

At the time, Chief Justice John Roberts responded, "Cracking the safe may be the only way to get the money you want, but it doesn't mean you can do it." He added, "If it's the only way, the way for you to do it is to get a license." In the end, Roberts joined the majority opinion in favor of Google. 

Also joining the majority were justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh; Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented. Justice Amy Coney Barrett didn't participate as she wasn't on the court at the time the case was heard. 

Developers cheer the Supreme Court decision

Many developers and others in the tech world welcomed the court's decision:

  • Tim Bray, who worked at Sun Microsystems, Google and most recently Amazon Web Services, offered a smiley face emoji when he tweeted that the decision is "an expensive and humiliating loss for Oracle."
  • "This lawsuit was the source of major anxiety for me. The wrong decision here could have fundamentally broken tech," tweeted Navneet Joneja, a vice president at software maker VMware who previously worked at Microsoft and Google. "So glad to see they made the right decision!"
  • "Thank you to the Supreme Court for saving all modern computing from an onslaught of copyright trolls," tweeted Alex Stamos, a security researcher at the Stanford Internet Observatory and former security leader at Facebook.
  • Basecamp Chief Technology Officer David Heinemeier Hansson cheered the decision but wasn't happy it took so long. "What a disaster for the US legal system that this took OVER A DECADE to resolve," he tweeted. "Original suit filed in August, 2010!"
  • "An opposite ruling would have brought into question all the reverse engineering that's made the web what it is," tweeted Ian "Hixie" Hickson, a Google engineer who's been instrumental in setting technical standards like HTML that make the web work.

Copyright caveat

There's a caveat to the Supreme Court's decision, though. Google had argued that APIs aren't copyrightable, a stance many developers had applauded. The Supreme Court didn't rule on that point, though, addressing only Google's fair use argument so it had "to decide no more than is necessary to resolve this case."

But the decision still offers consolation to those worried about whether APIs are copyrightable, tweeted Gordon Haff, a technology evangelist at IBM's Red Hat software division.

"On the one hand, it would have been nice to see SCOTUS say APIs are not copyrightable," Haff tweeted. "On the other hand, that would probably be very close to legislating from the bench, and this ruling probably has almost the same practical effect."