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Fair use defence prevails in Google-Oracle battle over computer code

Peter Griffin, Contributor. 06 April 2021, 8:49 am

Google has triumphed at the US Supreme Court in a long-running court case with rival Oracle the outcome of which has major implications for the software industry.

The Supreme Court Justices voted 6-2 that Google did not infringe Oracle's intellectual property when it used a fragment of Oracle's computer code in developing its Android operating system for smartphones over 15 years ago.

Oracle had hit Google with a US$8 billion lawsuit over a decade ago, claiming breach of copyright. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the judgement today that Oracle's "material was copyrightable". 

"But we hold that the copying here at issue nonetheless constituted a fair use. Hence, Google's copying did not violate the copyright law".

Alex Stamos, Director of the Stanford Internet Observatory no doubt reflected the relief of many in the tech industry when he tweeted:

Screenshot 2021-04-06 at 8.42.34 AM.png

Google wrote millions of lines of code for its early iteration of Android and used 11,500 lines of Java code that Oracle had developed. That amounted to 0.4% of the code base. Because Google had used the code in a "transformative" way, rather than just mimicking Oracle's use of it, the fair use provision applied, the Justices ruled.

Fair use is commonly cited among software developers using portions of code from other sources. But the court case had cast a shadow over the practice and threatened to chill innovation as companies held off on re-using code, fearful of being hit with similar lawsuits further down the track.

The Supreme Court also considered whether enforcing Oracle's copyright over its code would be in the public interest. The Court noted that "given programmers' investment in learning the Sun Java API", there was a risk of making "the Sun Java API's declaring code a lock limiting the future creativity of new programs. Oracle alone would hold the key".

Oracle argued that this was an acceptable situation under Copyright law. But fair use, which also allows copyrighted material to be republished for purposes such as for criticism or educational purposes, also applies to software code and APIs (application programming interfaces).

Google Senior Vice President of Global Affairs Kent Walker called the ruling, a "big win for innovation, interoperability & computing". 


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