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/ Copyright: U.S. Supreme Court settles dispute between Oracle and Google

23 April, 2021

On April 5, 2021 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Google, ruling that it did not violate copyright law by using Oracle Corp. software code to build the Android operating system.

Jaime Urzúa
Alessandri Associate Attorney

In early April the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruled that Google’s use of almost 11,500 lines of source code and part of the APIs (Application Program Interfaces) of the Java SE program (owned by Oracle), constituted fair use under the fair use doctrine.

In this unprecedented ruling, the highest court settled the dispute that had been dragging on since 2010 between the two technology giants. More than a decade ago, Oracle sued Google for copyright infringement on the grounds that Google, during the development of the first versions of the Android operating system, had used part of the APIs and source code of Java SE.

Java SE uses one of the most popular programming languages for software development: Java. Given the reputation and recognition of this language, Google copied without authorization a portion of this program that allows developers to use pre-existing software so that, together with the computer hardware, a large number of tasks can be executed. Google wanted programmers familiar with Java to be able to work easily on the new Android platform, which is intended to be open and have few restrictions for developers.

Google’s copying was considered legitimate, as it was protected by the US fair use statute. Although Google engaged in conduct -in principle- prohibited by the Copyright Act, such conduct was exempted from infringement. For this, the SCOTUS took into consideration, among other factors, the nature of the work affected (in this case a computational work), Google’s purpose for using the work, the quantity and importance of the part used, together with the market or value of the protected work.

With this, the Supreme Court gave a boost to software developers, interpreting that U.S. law should not discourage learning how to operate a computational work. For Oracle to hold the exclusive “key” to the program would pose a harmful risk to the public and limit the creativity of future programs, on the premise that an attempt to monopolize the market by making it impossible for others to compete is contrary to the legal objective of promoting creative expression.

Although the ruling applies to U.S. legislation and the fair use doctrine does not exist as such in Europe or Latin America, its content generates a precedent for the judiciary throughout the world for when similar cases come to local courts.