US Supreme Court: Google’s use of Java code for Android was fair use

The US Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Google in a more than ten-year lawsuit filed by Oracle. The latter company claimed that Google had illegally copied Java code for Android, but the judges did not agree.

The judges ruled that Google’s use of the code was lawful for four reasons. The main reason is that the adopted Java SE code mainly revolved around method calls, which allow developers to call other previously written code. Those method calls are therefore not used to let the computer perform new calculations itself. The code therefore has little value for the consumer who would use Android. Instead, according to the judges, the code has value mainly for the developer who has invested time to learn those method calls. Partly because of this, the adopted code falls under the use of fair use, the judges say.

In addition, Google used the Java code to develop new products, which, according to the judges, is a creative process. After all, according to the judges, the aim of copyright law is not to reward the creators of something that is subject to copyright, but rather to nurture creativity.

The third point is that Google only used a limited portion of the Java code. The 11,500 lines of code inherited were part of 2.86 million lines of code; Google therefore used ‘only’ 0.4 percent of Java SE. In addition, it was judged that it would have been difficult to attract Java developers without adopting that code, because of the code’s practical functionality.

Finally, the acquisition of the code for Oracle has not resulted in loss of revenue or loss of potential markets. Neither Oracle or Sun would have had much chance of success, according to the judges, if they had entered the smartphone market. As a result, the Android software did not compete with Java SE and Oracle did not suffer any financial loss as a result of Google’s use of the code.

The decision of the Supreme Court has reversed an earlier decision of a lower court. In 2018, an appeals court ruled that Google’s use of the Java code was not fair use. This judge found that the use of Google was not non-commercial and ruled that Google had earned 42 billion in turnover. Oracle previously said it was entitled to $8.8 billion in damages. The lawsuit began in 2010, shortly after Oracle acquired Java maker Sun Microsystems.

Google initially wanted to buy a license for the Java SE platform from Sun Microsystems, but these talks stalled because of Sun’s requirements for Java applications. Sun’s policy was that programs developed with the Java SE platform should be able to run on multiple devices. Not only on Android smartphones, but also on computers and laptops, for example. However, Google wanted Android to be an open source platform with few restrictions on what developers and users can do with Android. Oracle’s interoperable, multi-platform policy would go against this.

Therefore, the talks between Google and Sun stopped, and Google decided to independently develop the Android platform software. Google wanted developers familiar with Java to be able to work with Android as well, so it used 11,500 lines of code from a Java SE api.