Justices Side With Google in Copyright Fight With Oracle

April 5, 2021 by Dan McCue

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Monday sided with Google in a long running copyright dispute over the software used in Android, the mobile operating system.

The court decision was 6-2, as Justice Amy Coney Barrett had not yet been confirmed by the Senate when the case was argued in October, and therefore did not participate in the case.

To create Android, which was released in 2007 and is now used on most of the smartphones in the world, Google wrote millions of lines of new computer code, but also used 11,330 lines of code that are part of the Java platform.

The Java programming interface was developed by Sun Microsystems, which was acquired by Oracle in 2010.

In their essence, the arguments came down to the same claims made in music industry lawsuits for decades — how much of another’s work can you use before you have to pay some kind of royalty.

Recording artists of all kinds have been subject to such a lawsuit, notably the former Beatle George Harrison, who fought in court — and ultimately lost — over whether his “My Sweet Lord” and the Chiffon’s “He’s So Fine” were essentially the same song.

In the end, Harrison was found guilty of “subconscious plagiarism” and had to pay $1,599,987 of the earnings from “My Sweet Lord” to Bright Tunes (songwriter Ronnie Mack had died in 1963, shortly after “He’s So Fine” charted).

More recently, a judge entered a nearly $5 million judgment against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams in favor of Marvin Gaye’s family in the long-running lawsuit involving copyright infringement surrounding Thicke and Williams’ song “Blurred Lines” and Gaye’s 1977 hit “Got to Give It Up.” 

Many artists avoid the cost of litigation by admitting to “borrowing” from the work of another, citing the “folk tradition” in American music, and quickly settling out of court.

In the tech world, the words “folk tradition” are replaced by the phrase “doctrine of fair use,” and the all-out war between Google and Oracle was seen as the landmark dispute over what types of computer code are protected under U.S. copyright law.

Google maintained all along that its use of code was covered under the doctrine of fair use and therefore not subject to copyright liability. Oracle claimed it was owed as much as $9 billion for infringement.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held that the code in question was copyrightable and that Google’s use of it was not protected by fair use.

Shortly afterward, as the case awaited its day before the Supreme Court, Microsoft argued in a friend-of-the-court brief that the federal appeals court decision “threatens modern paradigms of software development.”

IBM and several tech industry lobbying groups also sided with Google. 

The Motion Picture Association and the Recording Industry Association of America were among those supporting Oracle.

On Monday, the Supreme Court reversed the appeals court’s decision. Justice Stephen Breyer, who wrote the majority opinion in the case, held that Google’s use of the code was protected under fair use, noting that Google took “only what was needed to allow users to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program.”

“To the extent that Google used parts of the Sun Java API to create a new platform that could be readily used by programmers, its use was consistent with that creative ‘progress’ that is the basic constitutional objective of copyright itself,” Breyer added.

But the justice stopped short of deciding whether the code was subject to copyright.

“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.

Breyer was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented.

In his dissent, joined by Alito, Thomas said the majority was wrong to skip over the question of copyrightability.

“The Court wrongly sidesteps the principal question that we were asked to answer: Is declaring code protected by copyright? I would hold that it is,” Thomas wrote.

“The majority purports to save for another day the question whether declaring code is copyrightable. The only apparent reason for doing so is because the majority cannot square its fundamentally flawed fair-use analysis with a finding that declaring code is copyrightable,” Thomas said.

In a statement, Oracle said that “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,” Oracle said.

In The News

Health

Voting

Supreme Court

Mississippi Argues Supreme Court Should Overturn Roe v. Wade
Supreme Court
Mississippi Argues Supreme Court Should Overturn Roe v. Wade

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The U.S. Supreme Court should overturn its landmark 1973 ruling that legalized abortion nationwide and let states decide whether to regulate abortion before a fetus can survive outside the womb, the office of Mississippi's Republican attorney general argued in papers filed Thursday... Read More

Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Deaf Woman’s Emotional Distress Suit
Supreme Court
Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Deaf Woman’s Emotional Distress Suit
July 6, 2021
by Tom Ramstack

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Supreme Court plans to hear a case in its next term that could expand rights of discrimination victims to collect compensation for "emotional distress." A ruling that allows the compensation could widely broaden the liability for discrimination, potentially allowing anyone victimized by... Read More

Supreme Court Strikes Down Disclosure Rules for Political Donors
Supreme Court
Supreme Court Strikes Down Disclosure Rules for Political Donors
July 1, 2021
by Dan McCue

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a California law that required nonprofits to disclose lists of their biggest donors, holding the requirement burdened donors’ First Amendment rights and was not narrowly tailored to an important government interest. In a 6-3 ruling authored by... Read More

Supreme Court Upholds Arizona Voting Restrictions
Supreme Court
Supreme Court Upholds Arizona Voting Restrictions
July 1, 2021
by Dan McCue

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court ruled Thursday to uphold two provisions of Arizona’s election law that critics argued unfairly impinged on the rights of Black, Hispanic and Native Americans voters. By a 6-3 margin, the justices held that a 2016 law that limits who can return... Read More

Pipeline Company Can Use Eminent Domain to Claim State Land
Supreme Court
Pipeline Company Can Use Eminent Domain to Claim State Land
June 29, 2021
by Dan McCue

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday a company building a natural gas pipeline in New Jersey can continue to rely on eminent domain to claim state land in its path. The 5-4 ruling by the court included both liberal and conservative members of the court... Read More

Transgender Rights, Religion Among Cases Justices Could Add
Supreme Court
Transgender Rights, Religion Among Cases Justices Could Add

WASHINGTON (AP) — A closely watched voting rights dispute from Arizona is among five cases standing between the Supreme Court and its summer break. But even before the justices wrap up their work, likely later this week, they could say whether they'll add more high-profile issues... Read More

News From The Well
scroll top