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The Supreme Court Rules Against Oracle in Long-Running Android Copyright Case

By Anders Bylund - Apr 5, 2021 at 1:50PM

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The ruling avoided settling the question of whether software can be copyrighted in the first place, focusing on fair use provisions instead.

The copyright battle over Android and Java that started way back in 2010 has finally been settled by the Supreme Court. In a 6-2 decision with Justice Barrett recusing herself, the court dismissed the claims from Oracle (ORCL 2.37%) to rule in favor of Alphabet (NASDAQ: (GOOG -1.29%) (GOOGL -1.34%) subsidiary Google.

The legal issue

Early versions of the Android software platform for mobile devices included 11,500 lines of code taken directly from the source code of Oracle's Java programming language. Oracle claimed that Google's reuse of these lines infringed on Java's copyright, demanding as much as $9 billion in compensation. Google's lawyers said that computer code doesn't fall under the protection of standard copyright terms due to its functional nature, and that the particular code in question was always meant to serve a public purpose as part of Java's application programming interface (API).

Some courts on the way to the SCOTUS desk agreed with Oracle's view, but the Justices came down on Google's side of the argument. The copying was seen as "fair use" of Oracle's Java API code as a matter of law. The case has been sent back to the Federal Circuit Court for final proceedings that must conform to this new SCOTUS ruling.

A judge's gavel resting on a wooden stand with barely visible numbers in the background.

Image source: Getty Images.

Can software be copyrighted? We'll get back to you on that.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented with the majority view, calling the fair-use analysis "flawed" and difficult to reconcile with the idea that computer code is copyrightable. The majority ruling avoided the software copyright question, letting the fair use doctrine carry the full weight of the legal settlement. Rather than settling that thorny basket of questions in a single Supreme Court case, Justice Breyer wrote that the conversation between Congress and courts should continue to examine and define copyright concepts.

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