In what has been called the “Copyright Case of the Century,” the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Google in its long-standing battle with Oracle.
WHY DID ORACLE SUE GOOGLE?
Oracle sued Google more than a decade ago. In 2010, the tech firm sued Google for copying about 11,500 lines of computer code from its Java platform to create Android, Google’s mobile operating system. Oracle sought $9 billion in damages.
However, in a 6-2 opinion written by Justice Breyer, the Supreme Court ruled that Google’s actions fell under the doctrine of “fair use” in copyright law. Justice Breyer argued that copyright enforcement could sometimes result in “harm to the public” because it would force other companies to develop their own Application Programming Interface, also known as API.
Note: “Fair use” is a doctrine in copyright law that permits the unlicensed use of copyrighted material in certain circumstances.
DOES IT MEAN COMPUTER CODE IS NOT COPYRIGHTABLE?
In his opinion, Justice Breyer acknowledged that the Oracle vs. Google case is based on functional computer code rather than creative intellectual property such as a book or movie. In other words, while works of creativity are the core of copyright, computer code may not always be copyrightable because it is “further from the core of copyright.”
Justice Breyer argued that while a copyright infringement may result in potential losses for the owner of the copyrighted material, it is also worth considering the potential public benefits of copying someone’s work.
Not only did the ruling save Google from billions of dollars in damages, but it also gave other programmers the green light to use computer code written by others to carry out certain software tasks.
WHAT DOES THE SUPREME COURT’S RULING MEAN FOR OTHERS?
As many companies continue to grapple with different new forms of intellectual property in our era of technologies, the Supreme Court’s ruling could further complicate things.
The Supreme Court’s ruling may be a huge concern for movie studios as well as companies in other industries. While movie studios may not care much about computer code, they should be concerned about the potential application of the fair use doctrine in other contexts.
In particular, companies across many industries should pay close attention to Justice Breyer’s opinion regarding the “harm to the public” and the potential public benefits of copying someone else’s work.
The Oracle vs. Google case produced a groundbreaking ruling in the history of copyright enforcement. In the Court’s majority opinion, Justice Breyer essentially reasoned that copyright enforcement could slow down progress.
More importantly, Justice Breyer noted that the application of the fair use doctrine depends on the particular factual circumstances of each case at hand. He also argued that copyright protection might be stronger where the material is fiction, not fact.
At the same time, Justice Breyer does not seem to limit the application of the fair use doctrine and opens the door for “a context-based check” to keep a copyright monopoly within its lawful bounds.
What do you think? Should computer code be protected in the same way as a screenplay, book or painting?