In a long-running copyright battle involving two California companies, the Supreme Court handed Google a major victory Monday involving the Android operating system that runs most smartphones.
In a 6-2 decision, the justices overturned a lower court’s ruling that found Google’s inclusion of Oracle’s software code in Android did not constitute a fair use under U.S. 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, technology giants with combined annual revenues of more than $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 U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington reviving the suit.
The ruling spares Google of a potentially massive damages verdict. Oracle had been seeking more than $8 billion, but renewed estimates went as high as $20 billion to $30 billion, according to two people with knowledge of the situation.
Oracle’s lawsuit accused Google of plagiarizing its Java software by copying 11,330 lines of computer code as well as the way it is organized, to create Android and reap billions of dollars in revenue. Android, for which developers have created millions of applications, now powers more than 70% of the world’s mobile devices.
Google said 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 copyright law.
The case has whipsawed since the start, with Google twice losing at the Federal Circuit. In 2014, that appeals court reversed a federal judge’s ruling that Oracle’s interfaces could not be copyrighted. The Supreme Court in 2015 rebuffed a previous Google appeal in the case.
A jury cleared Google in 2016, but 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 so-called fair use doctrine of the 1976 Copyright Act, rejecting Google’s argument that by adapting them to a mobile platform it transformed them into something new.
Both companies and their supporters claimed that a ruling against them would harm innovation. Google said the shortcut commands it copied into Android help developers write programs to work across platforms, a key to software innovation and the information age, while Oracle said developers would not create new software knowing it would simply be stolen.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not participate in the ruling as she had not yet joined the court when oral arguments were held on Oct. 7.