The case concerned Google's reliance on aspects of the Java programming language in its Android operating system. Java has been owned by Oracle since its 2010 purchase of Sun Microsystems, with Oracle claiming that its use without permission amounted to copyright permission.
Google argued that free access to the software interfaces was crucial to the innovation economy, with the court finding that it was protected by the “fair use” exception to copyright protections.
Previously, a 2016 San Francisco jury had found that Google had not violated copyright, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled differently in 2018.
The Supreme Court agreed to look at the case on the basis of determining whether the 11,000 lines of Java that Google used were copyrightable and, if they were, whether Google’s use of them was subject to the fair-use exception.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer said: “Given the rapidly changing technological, economic and business-related circumstances, we believe we should not answer more than is necessary to resolve the parties’ dispute.” Avoiding the question of whether the code could be copyrighted, Justice Breyer said that the court had assumed that it “falls within the definition of that which can be copyrighted.”
The two dissenting voices on the court were Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. Justice Thomas said that he disagreed with the court's ambivalence as to whether the code could be copyrighted or not. “The court wrongly sidesteps the principal question that we were asked to answer,” he wrote, adding that he would have ruled that the code was protected by copyright laws.
Justice Breyer argued that Google's use of the code expanded “the use and usefulness of Android-based smartphones”. “Its new product offers programmers a highly creative and innovative tool for a smartphone environment.”
Justice Thomas, however, dissented. He wrote: “By copying Oracle’s work, Google decimated Oracle’s market and created a mobile operating system now in over 2.5 billion actively used devices, earning tens of billions of dollars every year,” he wrote. “If these effects on Oracle’s potential market favor Google, something is very wrong with our fair-use analysis.
“A Broadway musical script needs actors and singers to invest time learning and rehearsing it,” he wrote. “But a theater cannot copy a script – the rights to which are held by a smaller theater – simply because it wants to entice actors to switch theaters and because copying the script is more efficient than requiring the actors to learn a new one.”