Tech Transfer eNews Blog

Supreme Court ruling in Google v. Oracle has major implications for software copyrights


By Jesse Schwartz
Published: April 7th, 2021

The Supreme Court ruled Monday in favor of Google in a long-running copyright dispute against Oracle that has huge implications for Silicon Valley, and for university TTOs seeking copyright protection for software innovations.

The court found that Google did not violate the law when it used more than 11,000 lines of Oracle’s software code in developing its Android mobile operating system. The tech industry in the U.S. has carefully watched the case since it will help determine rules around building software, and how much code from other programs constitutes “fair use.” A decision in the other direction could have brought upheaval to the huge software industry, calling into question the legality of many software innovations that are built on pieces of other programs.

The decision addresses how U.S. copyright applies to API — software code that enables programs to work with each other. Google had been accused of pilfering a sizable cache of API code developed by Sun Microsystems, which was later acquired by Oracle.

“We assume, for argument’s sake, that the material was copyrightable,” the decision said. “But we hold that the copying here at issue nonetheless constituted a fair use. Hence, Google’s copying did not violate the copyright law,” the ruling stated.  

Google argued that API is regularly used freely by developers to increase interoperability between different products and should be covered by the fair use provisions in copyright law, which allow the unlicensed use of otherwise copyrighted material under some circumstances.

Oracle had argued that the code was protected under copyright law, and that Google should have paid for using it.

Both sides also made arguments for why their position was important to future innovation in the field. Google said that applying stringent copyright protections to APIs would chill developers who build many important software products using shared code. Oracle countered that looser restrictions would discourage programmers from investing deeply in software development, knowing that the resulting code could be used by others without compensation.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court said Google’s use of Oractle’s API “included only those lines of code that were needed to allow programmers to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program.”

Kent Walker, Google’s senior vice president of global affairs, described the ruling as a victory for innovation. “The decision gives legal certainty to the next generation of developers whose new products and services will benefit consumers,” he said.

Source: Politico

Posted under: Tech Transfer e-News

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