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Google defeats Oracle in decade-long API copyright feud

The Supreme Court ruling has been declared a “victory for the entire software industry”

Google has won a major copyright case after the US Supreme Court ruled in its favour over Oracle’s claim that the use of its software code in the Android OS violated copyright law.

In the 6-2 decision, justices decided to overturn a lower US court’s ruling that Google’s inclusion of Oracle’s software code in its operating system did not constitute a fair use under US copyright law.

Justice Breyer, writing the opinion of the court for the justices that ruled on it, stated that allowing enforcement of Oracle’s copyright would “risk harm to the public”. 

“Given the costs and difficulties of producing alternative APIs with similar appeal to programmers, allowing enforcement here would make of the Sun Java API’s declaring code a lock limiting the future creativity of new programs. Oracle alone would hold the key. The result could well prove highly profitable to Oracle (or other firms holding a copyright in computer interfaces),” he wrote.

Breyer added that the “lock” would interfere with, not further, copyright’s basic creativity objectives.

The court found that Google’s copying of the Sun Java API was “a fair use of that material as a matter of law”. The Supreme Court reversed the Federal Circuit’s “contrary judgement” and the case has been remanded for further proceedings “in conformity with this opinion”.

Kent Walker, Google’s SVP of Global Affairs, told IT Pro that the ruling is a victory for consumers, interoperability, and computer science. 

“The decision gives legal certainty to the next generation of developers whose new products and services will benefit consumers. We are very grateful for the support from a wide range of organizations, from the National Consumers League to the American Library Association, as well as from established  companies, start-ups, and the country’s leading software engineers and copyright scholars,” he said.

Dorian Daley, executive vice president and general counsel at Oracle, said in a statement that Google’s platform just got bigger and its market power greater, which has elevated the barriers to entry 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,” Daley stated.

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Google’s parent company, Alphabet, also has plans in the coming weeks to stop using Oracle’s financial software and instead use software from SAP, according to CNBC. The company’s core financial systems are reportedly scheduled to move to SAP in May, but for now there is no other indication the company is moving other systems off Oracle.

Commenting on the court’s decision, Hannu Valtonen, chief product officer at Aiven, called it a “victory for the entire software industry”.

If Oracle had won, Google’s usage of the Java API in developing the Android operating system would be considered copyright infringement,” said Valtonen. “A change to the fair use of APIs would’ve severely slowed down the current pace of software innovation and created more cutthroat competition between tech giants who could potentially block the use of an API without payment. 

“For startups like ours, the fair and open usage of certain technologies promotes successful innovation for everyone, and Google’s win is certainly a positive result for end-users.”

Oracle’s copyright battle with Google has been ongoing for 11 years and in 2018 it was seeking around $8.8 billion in damages following the ruling in its favour.

In 2019, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the copyright lawsuit between the two tech giants as Google petitioned the court in January asking it to overturn “a devastating one-two punch at the software industry”.

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