Google’s copying of so-called application programming interfaces from Oracle’s Java SE was an example of fair use, the court held in a 6-2 decision authored by Justice Stephen Breyer.
In addition to resolving a multibillion-dollar dispute between the tech titans, the ruling helps affirm a longstanding practice in software development. But the Court declined to weigh in on the broader question of whether APIs are copyrightable.
Google didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. In a statement, Oracle reiterated its allegation that Google “stole” Java and used its economic dominance to fight a protracted legal battle.
“The Google platform just got bigger and market power greater,” Oracle said. “The barriers to entry higher and the ability to compete lower …. This behavior is exactly why regulatory authorities around the world and in the United States are examining Google’s business practices.”
Writing for the Court, Breyer said that while it is difficult to apply traditional copyright concepts in the context of software programming, Google copied “only what was needed to allow users to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program.”
A world where Oracle was allowed to enforce a copyright claim, Breyer added, “would risk harm to the public” because it would establish Oracle as a new gatekeeper for software code others wanted to use.
“Oracle alone would hold the key,” Breyer wrote. “The result could well prove highly profitable to Oracle (or other firms holding a copyright in computer interfaces) … [but] the lock would interfere with, not further, copyright’s basic creativity objectives.”
In oral arguments in October, Oracle said that Google’s conduct, left unchecked, would ruin the software industry by making it so that developers could not be rewarded for their work when others used their code.
Google argued that a win for Oracle would destroy the software industry by erecting enormous copyright hurdles for developers and forcing them either to reinvent the wheel every time they wanted to instruct a computer to do something, or to pay licensing fees to the most dominant software companies for the right to carry out simple, mundane tasks.
Oracle had previously said Google should pay $9 billion to reflect the alleged copyright violation.
Central to the legal battle was software that Oracle claimed Google stole when it was designing its Android mobile platform for app developers.
Known as application programming interfaces, or APIs, the software in question was made of helper code akin to building blocks that developers could plug into a larger program. APIs are ubiquitous in today’s highly networked information economy, in which apps of different types and from different providers need to be able to work together and share data in order to serve consumers.
The law treats computer programs as generally copyrightable. But APIs are different, Google argued, because they involve little creative expression and are simply used by developers as shorthand to invoke groups of other instructions supported by the programming language.
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