Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc.

Docket Number: 18-956
Judge: Stephen G. Breyer
Opinion Date: April 5, 2021

Oracle owns a copyright in Java SE, a computer platform. Google acquired Android and sought to build a new software platform for mobile devices. To allow millions of programmers familiar with Java to work with its new platform, Google copied roughly 11,500 lines of code from Java SE. The copied lines allow programmers to call upon prewritten computing tasks for use in their own programs. The Federal Circuit held that the copied lines were copyrightable and reversed a jury’s finding of fair use.

The Supreme Court reversed. Google’s copying of code lines needed to allow programmers to put their talents to work in a transformative program was fair use as a matter of law. Copyright protection cannot extend to “any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery,” 17 U.S.C. 102(b), and a copyright holder may not prevent another from making a “fair use” of a copyrighted work.

Assuming that the copied lines can be copyrighted, the Court focused on “fair use.” The “right of trial by jury” does not include the right to have a jury resolve a fair use defense. Unlike other types of code, much of the copied material’s value derives from the investment of users (computer programmers) who have learned the system; application of fair use here is unlikely to undermine the general copyright protection for computer programs. The “purpose and character” of this use is transformative. Google copied only about 0.4 percent of the entire program at issue and that was tethered to a valid, transformative, purpose. Google’s new smartphone platform is not a market substitute for Java SE; the copyright holder would benefit from the reimplementation of its interface into a different market. Enforcing the copyright on these facts risks causing creativity-related harms to the public. View “Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc.” on Justia Law

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