Google Wins Java Copyright Case

Posted on April 5, 2021 by Paul Thurrott in Android, Dev, Google with 18 Comments

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today in Google v. Oracle and sided 6-2 with the online giant in determining that its copying of Java code constitutes fair use.

“We assume, for argument’s sake, that the material [Google copied] was copyrightable,” the ruling notes. “But we hold that the copying here at issue nonetheless constituted a fair use. Hence, Google’s copying did not violate the copyright law.”

Oracle acquired Sun Microsystems, the original owner of Java, in 2009, and cited the programming language as one of the firm’s key assets. But despite a pledge to “continue innovation and investment in Java technology for the benefit of customers and the Java community,” Oracle quickly turned on Google, whose Android mobile platform is arguably the biggest consumer of Java technology. It continued a lawsuit against the online giant that was first launched by Sun, alleging that Google “copy and pasted 11,000 lines of Java code” in creating Android.

Google admitted to this copying in 2016, but a series of court battles in the ensuing years muddied things. A federal jury decided in 2012 that software code is not protected by U.S. copyright laws, but that ruling was overturned two years later on appeal. Then, another jury found in 2016 that Google’s use of Java was legal under the fair use doctrine. That decision was likewise overturned on appeal, in 2018.

In January 2019, Google turned to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Court agreed to hear the case the following November. The first filings were submitted in January 2020.

Google asked the Supreme Court to consider two questions: Whether the Java APIs it copied are copyrightable in the first place and whether Google’s use of those APIs in the creation of Android constituted fair use.

“A holding for Google on either question presented would dispense with Oracle’s copyright claims,” the Court notes in its ruling. “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. We shall assume, but purely for argument’s sake, that the entire Sun Java API falls within the definition of that which can be copyrighted. We shall ask instead whether Google’s use of part of that API was a ‘fair use.’ Unlike the [appellate court], we conclude that it was.”

I’m not sure that I’ve seen a court ruling with this much technical information since U.S. v. Microsoft in the late 1990s. It’s an interesting read if you’re curious about this case, and a good read if you’re concerned that the national discourse has devolved into sound bites and emojis.

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