The Business Times

Google wins major copyright case against Oracle

In a 6-2 decision, the US Supreme Court overturned a lower court's ruling that Google's inclusion of Oracle's software code in Android did not constitute fair use under US law

Published Wed, Apr 7, 2021 · 05:50 AM
Share this article.

THE US Supreme Court handed Alphabet's Google a major victory on Monday, ruling that its use of Oracle's software code to build the Android operating system that runs most of the world's smartphones did not violate federal copyright law. In a 6-2 decision, the judges overturned a lower court's ruling that Google's inclusion of Oracle's software code in Android did not constitute fair use under US copyright law.

Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority, said that allowing Oracle to enforce a copyright on its code would harm the public by making it a "lock limiting the future creativity of new programs. Oracle alone would hold the key". Oracle and Google, with combined annual revenues of more than US$175 billion, have been feuding since Oracle sued for copyright infringement in 2010 in San Francisco federal court. Google had appealed a 2018 ruling by the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington reviving the suit.

The ruling spares Google a potentially massive damages verdict. Oracle had been seeking more than US$8 billion, but renewed estimates went as high as US$20 billion to US$30 billion, said sources.

"The decision gives legal certainty to the next generation of developers whose new products and services will benefit consumers," said Kent Walker, Google's senior vice-president of global affairs.

Oracle's lawsuit accused Google of plagiarising its Java software by copying 11,330 lines of computer code, as well as the way it is organised, to create Android and reap billions of dollars in revenue. Android, for which developers have created millions of applications, now powers over 70 per cent of the world's mobile devices.

Google has said that it did not copy a computer program but rather used elements of Java's software code needed to operate a computer program or platform. Federal copyright law does not protect mere "methods of operation". The companies also disputed whether Google made fair use of Oracle's software code, making it permissible under the 1976 Copyright Act.

GET BT IN YOUR INBOX DAILY

Start and end each day with the latest news stories and analyses delivered straight to your inbox.

VIEW ALL

Dorian Daley, Oracle's executive vice-president and general counsel, said that with the ruling, "the Google platform just got bigger and market power greater" and "the barriers to entry higher and the ability to compete lower". "They stole Java and spent a decade litigating as only a monopolist can. This behaviour is exactly why regulatory authorities around the world and in the US are examining Google's business practices," Mr Daley said.

Technology industry trade groups cheered the ruling, saying that an Oracle victory in the case would have inhibited competition by making it harder to use programming elements to ensure computer interoperability.

"The high court's decision that fair use extends to the functional principles of computer code means companies can offer competing, interoperable products," said Matt Schruers, president of the Computer & Communications Industry Association.

In Monday's ruling, Justice Breyer wrote: "Google's copying was transformative", adding that the company repurposed Oracle's code in a way that helps developers create programs. The ruling sidestepped the question of whether Oracle's code was entitled to copyright protection in the first place.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Samuel Alito, said the court should have found that Oracle's work deserved a copyright and Google's use was "anything but fair". Noting that Apple and Microsoft did not resort to copying like Google to create mobile operating systems, Justice Thomas said the ruling will harm competition.

If "companies may now freely copy libraries of declaring code whenever it is more convenient than writing their own, others will likely hesitate to spend the resources Oracle did to create intuitive, well-organised libraries that attract programmers and could compete with Android," Justice Thomas wrote.

Google twice lost at the Federal Circuit, in 2014 and 2018. A jury cleared Google in 2016. The Federal Circuit overturned that decision in 2018, finding that Google's incorporation of elements of Oracle's "application programming interfaces" was not permitted under the fair use doctrine, rejecting Google's argument that by adapting them to a mobile platform it transformed them into something new. REUTERS

BT is now on Telegram!

For daily updates on weekdays and specially selected content for the weekend. Subscribe to  t.me/BizTimes

Technology

SUPPORT SOUTH-EAST ASIA'S LEADING FINANCIAL DAILY

Get the latest coverage and full access to all BT premium content.

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Browse corporate subscription here