After a decade-long legal battle between Google and Oracle, the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Google – marking a win for the future of software.

In a 6-2 decision, the Supreme Court decided that Google’s limited copying of the Java SE Application Programming Interface (API) constituted fair use under copyright law.

When Google implemented its Android Operating System (Android OS), it wrote its programming language based on Java, which Oracle owns. Oracle sued Google for copyright infringement in 2010, but the federal district judge held that APIs are not subject to copyright because permitting a private entity to own the copyright to a programming language would not encourage innovation and collaboration, contrary to copyright goals.

Section 107 of the Copyright Act provides four factors that courts are to consider in deciding fair use issues:

  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portions used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

The opinion delivered by the Supreme Court found that Google’s use of the Java APIs is transformative. Google copied only what was necessary to allow programmers to work in a different computing environment but with a familiar programming language. Second, the copied lines are “inherently bound together with uncopyrightable ideas,” suggesting that the application of fair use to this context is unlikely to undermine the general copyright protection that Congress provided for computer programs. Third, Google copied only .4% of the entire API, weighing in favor of fair use. Finally, the record shows that Google’s new smartphone platform is not a market substitute for Java SE. Because all four factors support a finding of fair use, Google’s limited copying constituted fair use.

The full opinion of the Court can be found here.

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