This morning the Supreme Court reversed the Federal Circuit’s finding of copyright fair use in Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc. Justice Breyer authored the Court’s majority opinion, which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Sotomayor, Kagan, Kavanaugh, and Gorsuch joined. Justice Thomas authored a dissenting opinion, which Justice Alito joined. Justice Barrett did not participate in the case. Here are the introductions to the majority and dissenting opinions.
Oracle America, Inc., is the current owner of a copyright in Java SE, a computer program that uses the popular Java computer programming language. Google, without permission, has copied a portion of that program, a portion that enables a programmer to call up prewritten software that, together with the computer’s hardware, will carry out a large number of specific tasks. The lower courts have considered (1) whether Java SE’s owner could copyright the portion that Google copied, and (2) if so, whether Google’s copying nonetheless constituted a “fair use” of that material, thereby freeing Google from copyright liability. The Federal Circuit held in Oracle’s favor (i.e., that the portion is copyrightable and Google’s copying did not constitute a “fair use”). In reviewing that decision, we assume, for argument’s sake, that the material was copyrightable. But we hold that the copying here at issue nonetheless constituted a fair use. Hence, Google’s copying did not violate the copyright law.
Justice Thomas, with whom Justice Alito joins, dissenting.
Oracle spent years developing a programming library that successfully attracted software developers, thus enhancing the value of Oracle’s products. Google sought a license to use the library in Android, the operating system it was developing for mobile phones. But when the companies could not agree on terms, Google simply copied verbatim 11,500 lines of code from the library. As a result, it erased 97.5% of the value of Oracle’s partnership with Amazon, made tens of billions of dollars, and established its position as the owner of the largest mobile operating system in the world. Despite this, the majority holds that this copying was fair use.
The Court reaches this unlikely result in large part because it bypasses the antecedent question clearly before us: Is the software code at issue here protected by the Copyright Act? The majority purports to assume, without deciding, that the code is protected. But its fair-use analysis is wholly inconsistent with the substantial protection Congress gave to computer code. By skipping over the copyrightability question, the majority disregards half the relevant statutory text and distorts its fair-use analysis. Properly considering that statutory text, Oracle’s code at issue here is copyrightable, and Google’s use of that copyrighted code was anything but fair.