Supreme Court Vindicates Google in API Copyright Battle With Oracle

The Supreme Court of the United States has delivered a ruling on Oracle v. Google, an API copyrightability case that litigates Google’s use of Java SE APIs in its original Android applications. The majority opinion, authored by Justice Breyer, finds that Google did not violate Oracle’s copyright in Java SE.

This was a 6-2 decision, with Justices Roberts, Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh joining. Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion with Alito joining in dissent. Justice Barret did not participate in the decision. This decision appears to end a decade-long battle that had seen several reversals of fortune in the lower courts. Most recently the Federal Circuit had ruled in Oracle’s favor.

The Supreme Court decision notes that “Google’s copying of the API to reimplement a User Interface, taking only what was needed to allow users to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program, constituted a fair use of that material as a matter of law.” Additionally, Justice Breyer highlighted necessary restrictions on copyright law that are meant to prevent actions that are not in the interest of the greater good, “Because such exclusivity may trigger negative consequences, Congress and the courts have limited the scope of copyright protection to ensure that a copyright holder’s monopoly does not harm the public interest.”

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Thomas wrote that:

“The Court reaches this unlikely result in large part because it bypasses the antecedent question clearly before us: Is the software code at issue here protected by the Copyright Act? The majority purports to assume, without deciding, that the code is protected. But its fair-use analysis is wholly inconsistent with the substantial protection Congress gave to computer code”

Justice Thomas’s opinion demonstrates that although the matter of Oracle v. Google is seemingly settled, the greater question of the copyrightability of code is anything but. Oracle’s statement on the decision similarly portends ongoing litigation:

“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. This behavior is exactly why regulatory authorities around the world and in the United States are examining Google’s business practices.”

Predictably, Google agrees with the majority and states that it “... is a victory for consumers, interoperability, and computer science. The decision gives legal certainty to the next generation of developers whose new products and services will benefit consumers."

Be sure to read the next Law article: Daily API RoundUp: Lex Machina, DataSpark, Cricket Data