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Google wins Oracle copyright row at top court, ending decade-long battle

“The high court’s decision that fair use extends to the functional principles of computer code means companies can offer competing, interoperable products,” CCIA President Matt Schruers said in a statement.

“The Google platform just got bigger and market power greater — the barriers to entry higher and the ability to compete lower. They stole Java and spent a decade litigating as only a monopolist can.”

Oracle statement

At issue were pre-written directions known as application program interfaces, or APIs, which provide instructions for such functions as connecting to the internet or accessing certain types of files. By using those shortcuts, programmers don’t have to write code from scratch for every function in their software, or change it for every type of device.

Oracle said the Java APIs were freely available to those who wanted to build applications that run on computers and mobile devices. But Oracle said it required companies to get a license if they wanted to use the shortcuts for a competing platform or to embed them in an electronic device.

The Supreme Court didn’t address whether the code was eligible for copyright protection, an early point of contention. Instead, Breyer said that for this case the court would “assume, for argument’s sake, that the material was copyrightable.”

That approach drew criticism from Thomas, who said in his dissenting opinion that the majority opinion is “wholly inconsistent with the substantial protection Congress gave to computer code.”

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Oracle said Google was facing an existential threat because its search engine — the source of its advertising revenue — wasn’t being used on smartphones. Google bought the Android mobile operating system in 2005 and copied Java code to attract developers but refused to take a license, Oracle contended.

Breyer said that, though Google copied 11,500 lines of code, Google engineers wrote millions more.

“Google, through Android, provided a new collection of tasks operating in a distinct and different computing environment,” Breyer wrote. “Those tasks were carried out through the use of new implementing code (that Google wrote) designed to operate within that new environment.”

Google argued that software interfaces are categorically ineligible for copyright protection. Google also contended that a federal appeals court restricted the fair-use defence so much as to make it impossible for a developer to reuse an interface in a new application. The appeals court decision reversed a jury finding that Google’s copying was a legitimate fair use.

Tech companies including Mozilla Microsoft and IBM supported Google. Media and entertainment businesses, which rely on strong copyright standards, backed Oracle, as did the Trump administration when the case was argued in October.

Oracle initially sued Google for copyright infringement in 2010. Since then, the case has worked its way up and down the legal system, spurring two jury trials and numerous appeals.

The case is Google v. Oracle America, 18-956.

Bloomberg

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