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Supreme Court Hands Google A Win Over Oracle In Multibillion-Dollar Case

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-2 for Google in a case in which tech giant Oracle accused it of illegally copying its code. The decision is the culmination of a decade-long legal battle between the two companies.
J. Scott Applewhite
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-2 for Google in a case in which tech giant Oracle accused it of illegally copying its code. The decision is the culmination of a decade-long legal battle between the two companies.

The U.S. Supreme Court handed Google a major victory Monday in a multi-billion dollar copyright dispute.

By a 6-to-2 vote, the court declared that Google did not infringe on Oracle's copyright when it used a tiny portion of Oracle's computer code lines to create a new system software for smartphones in the early 2000s.

Google used about 11,500 lines of the Java code created by Oracle, but the court noted, that was only 0.4% of Java code. And because Google incorporated that four-tenths of a percent in an entirely new and "transformative" code for Android smartphones, that was a "fair use" under the nation's copyright laws, and Oracle is not entitled to payment.

Writing for the court, Justice Stephen Breyer recounted the decade-long history of the case, noting that the Java programming language was was invented by Sun Microsystems, which was acquired by Oracle. But Java was developed primarily for use in desktop and laptop computers. And Google, shortly after acquiring the Android firm, began talks with Sun about the possibility of licensing the entire Java platform for its new smartphone technology. But Google's plan was to use the popular Java code on an open-source basis, available for free to anyone. Sun objected, and when the two companies couldn't agree on terms, Google decided to build its own platform, which ultimately relied on a tiny portion of the Java code.

In layman's terms, Google's argument was that the Java code was like the basic tomato sauce on a pizza. You may be able to claim that the pizza is a new invention, but not the tomato sauce.

The 39-page opinion, written by Justice Breyer, noted that the purpose of the copyright law is not only to protect new products and innovations but, "more broadly," to "stimulate creativity for public illumination." And in this case Google has created a new computer code, open to all platforms, which "offers programmers a highly creative and innovative tool for a smartphone environment." Breyer said the small use Google made of the Java code "is consistent with that creative 'progress' that is the basic constitutional objective of copyright itself."

The decision settles many of the copyright issues that have plagued tech companies for more than a decade, said Charles Duan, senior fellow for technology and innovation policy at the R Street Institute, a nonpartisan free-market think tank.

"The decision means a lot for software compatibility," said Matt Tait, chief operating officer of Corellium, a company that provides smartphone services. "I can write platform software that other peoples' programs can run on, without worrying" that the connection is copyrighted.

Columbia law professor Jane C. Ginsburg, a leading voice on matters of intellectual property, said the decision does raise some potentially practical issues, however. Among them: "Will the Supreme Court's decision discourage open disclosure of code if programmers fear that their creativity can be cherry-picked and privatized?"

Dissenting from Monday's ruling were Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. As they saw it, when talks between Oracle and Google broke down, Google "simply copied verbatim 11,500 lines of code" from Oracle's library." And doing that "was anything but fair."

Oracle Co-founder and Chairman Larry Ellison and the company's CEO Safra Katz openly allied themselves with President Trump after his election in 2016, and his administration sided with the company in the Supreme Court. But in the end, their efforts were to no avail.

While Google crowed about its victory Monday, calling it a win for consumers, Oracle said 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," said Oracle Vice President and general counsel Dorian Daley. "This behavior is exactly why regulatory authorities around the world and the United States are examining Google's business practices."

Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not participate in the case.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.