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In Google v. Oracle, Supreme Court Hears Landmark Fair Use Case on Software Copyright

Jericho Casper

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Photo of Tom Goldstein from the Peabody Award used with permission

October 12, 2020 – The Supreme Court on Wednesday publicly struggled with the copyrightability of software in a uniquely contested case between Google and Oracle, the outcome of which could play a significant role in the future of software development in the United States.

The oral arguments were the culmination of a battle that started 10 years ago, when tech company Oracle accused Google of illegally copying its code. Oracle owns the copyright to the Java application programming interface that Google utilized to establish a new mobile operating system.

The company has sued Google for more than $9 billion in damages.

Yet Google claimed a “fair use” defense to its copying. Google copied less than 1 percent of the Java code. Even though the law generally treats computer programs as copyrightable, Google’s attorney before the Supreme Court, Thomas Goldstein, said that by adapting Oracle’s code to serve a different purpose, Google’s use was “transformational,” and entitled to fair use protections.

Goldstein said that this form of unlicensed copying is completely standard in software, and saves developers time and lowers barriers to innovation.

He referenced a famous Supreme Court precedent about public domain works, Baker v. Selden, which in 1880 declared that once information is published to the public, the public has a right to use it.

“Google had the right to do this,” said Goldstein.

Still, Oracle attorney Joshua Rosenkranz asserted that the Java code is an expressive work eligible for copyright protections. Rosenkranz further argued that Google’s use of the code was not transformational.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor appeared to suggest that jurors in the lower court case properly found Google’s use to be transformational because it took the APIs from a desktop environment to smartphones.

“Interfaces have been reused for decades,” said Goldstein. Google had to reuse Oracle’s code to respond to interoperability demands.

“It has always been the understanding that this purely functional, non-creative code that is essentially the glue that keeps computer programs together could be reused, and it would upend that world to rule the other way,” he said.

Supreme Court observers said that the high court appeared leaning toward upholding the 2016 jury verdict vindicating Google’s fair use defense.

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