Google obtained Android in 2005, and implemented the platform with a goal of making it free and open for developers. To accomplish this goal, Google decided to use the well-known programming language Java, then-owned by Sun Microsystems. By doing so, Google hoped to attract users to its platform, as opposed to competing platforms from, for example, Apple. Originally, Google negotiated with Sun Microsystems to license the Java platform; however, negotiations broke down, and Google decided to go it alone. To simplify its system, Google had to provide an accessible platform for developers to quickly create open source applications. As such, Google ended up copying 11,500 lines of code from Java, integrated into an Application Programming Interface (API). Sun Microsystems became Oracle, and Google’s use of Java led to extensive copyright litigation between software giants Google and Oracle. Oracle alleged copyright infringement, and Google defended, stating that it used the code under fair use.
What Exactly Did Google Copy?
By using an API, an Android developer can easily access lines of prewritten code to quickly build out an application. Since Android used the Java language, Google decided to package Oracle’s Java code into an API to prevent duplicative work. Developers gained key quality of life upgrades by using the Java commands they already knew well; however, while Google created many of its own instructions in its API, the 11,500 lines of code were directly copied. Oracle sued for both patent infringement and copyright infringement, proceeding to the Supreme Court on the copyright infringement claims. Google fought back, arguing that its use of the code constituted fair use.
Supreme Court Strengthens Copyright Fair Use Defense
During the long litigation history, the Federal Circuit decided that Google’s use of the Java code did not fall under fair use. However, the Supreme Court overruled the Federal Circuit, handing Google a fair use lifeline. Copyrights reside in a unique realm of intellectual property law, particularly because of the fair use defense to copyright infringement. Interestingly, the Court spoke at length about the reasons behind the fair use doctrine; the main idea is to provide leeway for uses that do not go against the spirit of copyright law. Copyright law in the US originated in the Constitution, and was designed to promote the progress of science and art. As such, a main question in fair cases is whether a finding of infringement would deter the progress of science and art.
The Court ultimately found the Google’s use of the 11,500 lines of Java code, or 0.4% of the API code, constituted fair use. Google did not use much of the code, and only used its functional aspects to make Android development easier. Moreover, Google’s ultimate goal was not to create a copy of the Java code; instead, Google aimed to transform the code into a vast smart device line of products. As such, the Court ruled, after 10+ years of litigation, that Google’s Android platform does not infringe Oracle’s Java copyrights.