WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court weighed into a decade-old battle Monday between tech firms Google and Oracle, finding the search giant was allowed to use thousands of lines of code to build the Android platform found in mobile devices.
Texas-based Oracle sued Google in 2010, alleging that its developers lifted software routines in Oracle’s Java programming language to create Android – the operating system that Google says powers 2.5 billion mobile devices worldwide. Oracle sought $9 billion in the lawsuit, which has bounced around in federal court for years.
But in a 6-2 opinion penned by Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, the court found that the practice fell under the “fair use” provision of copyright law.
Breyer was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Associate Justice Clarence Thomas dissented and was joined by Associate Justice Samuel Alito. Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not take part in the case, which was argued before she joined the high court.
“Google’s copying did not violate the copyright law,” Breyer wrote.
Breyer said that because computer programs are “primarily functional” it makes it difficult to apply traditional copyright concepts. But, he wrote, that is precisely what the court attempted to do.
“In doing so here, we have not changed the nature of those concepts,” he wrote. “We do not overturn or modify our earlier cases involving fair use – cases, for example, that involve ‘knockoff’ products, journalistic writings, and parodies,” he wrote. “Rather, we here recognize that application of a copyright doctrine such as fair use has long proved a cooperative effort of legislatures and courts, and that Congress, in our view, intended that it so continue.”
In his dissent, Thomas wrote that the court’s analysis of fair use is “wholly inconsistent with the substantial protection Congress gave to computer code.”
“Oracle’s code at issue here is copyrightable,” Thomas continued, “and Google’s use of that copyrighted code was anything but fair.”
During oral arguments in October most of the justices appeared to question Google’s right to copy some of the language but also expressed concern that a ruling against Google could set back future software development by requiring costly duplication.
Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, and others have told the court that a ruling for Oracle would stifle software development.
Tech battle:Supreme Court to decide Google-Oracle software copyright dispute
Arguments:Supreme Court wrestles with Google-Oracle copyright battle
“Cracking the safe may be the only way to get the money that you want, but that doesn’t mean you can do it,” Roberts said at the time.
Closely watched in the tech industry and hailed by some as the “copyright lawsuit of the decade,” Google hasn’t disputed that its engineers used about 11,500 lines of Java software code – a tiny fraction of the 15 million lines in its Android software – but it has told the court that its inclusion amounts to “fair use” of copyrighted material.
Fair use is a legal doctrine that permits the limited use of copyrighted material for certain purposes, generally things like research or criticism.
Google provides the Android system to smartphone manufacturers for free and allows others to use it under an open-source license. But while Google doesn’t charge for the platform, Android has generated billions of dollars for the company in advertising.
The case has been pending for years and made a previous stop at the Supreme Court in 2015, when the justices declined to hear it. A federal appeals court ruled against Google in 2018, reversing an earlier decision and ordering a trial for damages.
Contributing: Richard Wolf