Following a decade of fierce legal battles, the case between Google and Oracle America, Inc. has been settled with the United States Supreme Court siding with Google. The decision was announced in April 2021.
The case was centered on copyright law as it pertained to computer code. In particular 11,000 lines of source code owned by Oracle were used alongside parts of Java programming language’s application program interfaces in Google’s early iterations of the Android operating system.
Oracle had acquired Sun Microsystems in 2010, who were the creators of Java. Since those early versions, Google has shifted Android into using an engine with neither copyright issues nor source code. According to Google, the APIs were used in accordance with the fair use laws.
Oracle filed suit for damages up to US$8.8 billion. They claimed that the APIs used by Google was copyrightable and thus Google owed a portion of the sales and licensing for the versions of Android that used the Oracle source code.
After two District-Court trials with juries found in Google’s favor, those courts were both reversed by a Federal Circuit court. That court’s position was that application program interfaces were copyrightable and that fair use did not apply in Google’s argument.
Google successfully brought the case to the Supreme Court who ruled in April 2021 (after being delayed from 2020 due to the COVID pandemic) that fair use did apply in Google’s case. The ruling was 6-2.
According to the Supreme Court, Google’s usage of the APIs and source code satisfied the four factors that decide whether or not fair use is at play. The court’s majority opinion was written by Justice Stephen Bryer. The Justice’s position assumed APIs were copyrightable and thus how fair use applied.
Firstly the nature of the copyrighted work. Second, the purpose and character of the copyrighted work’s use. Third, the amount and substantiality of the copyrighted work. And fourth, the market-effect of copyrighting.
This decision by the Supreme Court will have far-reaching ramifications. It will shape how companies and individuals accused of copyright infringement can defend themselves. It can also be seen as a win for smaller software developers who might not have to worry about negotiating licenses with the same larger companies they have to compete with.
A decision in favor of Oracle could have had a severely negative effect on the future of software development. Though at the same time there has been criticism of the decision. Google’s victory could mean weaker copyright protection for smaller, less wealthy software developers.