Oracle sued after Google took approximately 11,500 lines of code from Java SE. Google had initially looked to license Java use in development for its Android smartphones, but ultimately opted to use its own platform to allow for greater flexibility. In order to attract programmers, the company used code from Java's Application Programming Interface (API) to that developers familiar with Java would have an easier time.
"We reach the conclusion that in this case, where Google reimplemented a user interface, taking only what was needed to allow users to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program, Google’s copying of the Sun Java API was a fair use of that material as a matter of law," Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the court's opinion. The court ruled 6-2, with Justice Amy Coney Barrett not participating in the decision.
"The Supreme Court’s clear ruling is a victory for consumers, interoperability, and computer science," Google senior vice president of global affairs Kent Walker said in a statement. "The decision gives legal certainty to the next generation of developers whose new products and services will benefit consumers."
Oracle lamented the ruling, saying it condoned what the company considered to be theft of its property.
"The Google platform just got bigger and market power greater — the barriers to entry higher and the ability to compete lower," a spokesperson for Oracle said in a statement to Fox Business. "They stole Java and spent a decade litigating as only a monopolist can. This behavior is exactly why regulatory authorities around the world and in the United States are examining Google's business practices."
Lower courts had weighed in on the issue of whether the code could even be copyrightable in the first place, but the Supreme Court opted to assume that it could be in order to focus their ruling solely on the fair use issue.
"Given the rapidly changing technological, economic, and business-related circumstances, we believe we should not answer more than is necessary to resolve the parties’ dispute," Breyer wrote.
The court noted that "copyright’s protection may be stronger where the copyrighted material is fiction, not fact ... or where it serves an artistic rather than a utilitarian function," noting that "computer programs differ from books, films, and many other “'iterary works' in that such programs almost always serve functional purposes." The court also said that Congress believed that doctrines like fair use "could prevent holders from using copyright to stifle innovation."
In determining whether the use of the API code at issue was fair use, the court looked at the nature of code, the "purpose and character" of the use, the "amount and sustainability of the portion used," and the market effect of the use.
On that last factor, the court said that allowing copyright enforcement in this case "would risk harm to the public" by making the API code "a lock limiting the future creativity of new programs," which "would interfere with, not further, copyright’s basic creativity objectives."