The US Supreme Court has handed Google victory in a landmark case for the software industry, ruling that it did not break the law when it copied software interfaces owned by Oracle for use in its Android smartphone operating system.
The decision ends a legal battle dating back more than a decade that involved a damages claim potentially topping $9bn. The case also raised fundamental issues affecting the balance of power between established platforms and upstart competitors in the software industry.
The justices decided for Google by a majority of six to two, with conservatives Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissenting. The case was heard before Amy Coney Barrett, appointed by former President Donald Trump, joined the court.
The decision found that Google was covered by “fair use” protections in the early days of the smartphone industry when it used more than 11,000 lines of Oracle code in order to make its Android operating system compatible with the widely used Java software, which was later acquired by Oracle.
Using the pieces of Java code, known as application programming interfaces, made it easier for Java developers to adapt their existing programs to run on Android, a big advantage to Google in its smartphone rivalry with Apple.
Google sought to put itself on the side of upstart competitors in the tech industry, claiming that the freedom to copy interfaces is important for anyone trying to compete with powerful tech platforms. But Oracle and its supporters claimed the case showed how powerful companies like Google steal code and have the legal might to crush challengers.
“The Google platform just got bigger and market power greater,” Oracle said after its loss. It added that the case showed “exactly why regulatory authorities around the world and in the United States are examining Google’s business practices.”
Google’s defence turned on a claim that interfaces shouldn’t have the legal protection that covers most computer code since they count as an essential “method of operation”, like a steering wheel in a car. It also argued that it was protected by fair use, which allows limited use of copyrighted material.
In reaching a decision only on the fair use point, the justices ruled that Google has used “only those lines of code that were needed to allow programmers to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program”.
By not ruling on whether interfaces are covered by copyright in the first place, the decision left open a key issue for the software industry.
Some developers have argued the case revealed the need for more clarity on the legal status of interfaces, which are widely copied within the industry. They warn most companies cannot afford the cost and uncertainty of mounting a lengthy “fair use” defence.
The court said it had chosen to “decide no more than is necessary to resolve this case”.