The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday sided with Google in a long-running copyright dispute with Oracle over software used to run most of the world's smartphones.
The 6-2 ruling, which resolved what Google had called "the copyright case of the decade," spared the company from having to face claims from Oracle for billions of dollars in damages.
The case concerned Google's reliance on aspects of Java, a programming language, in its Android operating system. Oracle, which acquired Java in 2010 when it bought Sun Microsystems, said using parts of Java without permission amounted to copyright infringement.
The case has broad ramifications for the software industry.
To create Android, which was released in 2007, Google wrote millions of lines of new computer code. But it also used 11,330 lines of code and an organization that's part of Oracle's Java platform.
Google had argued that what it did is long-settled, common practice in the industry, a practice that has been good for technical progress. And it said there is no copyright protection for the purely functional computer code it used, something that couldn't be written another way. But Austin, Texas-based Oracle said Google "committed an egregious act of plagiarism," and it sued.
In a statement, Google's chief legal officer, Kent Walker, called the Supreme Court ruling a "victory for consumers, interoperability, and computer science." "The decision gives legal certainty to the next generation of developers whose new products and services will benefit consumers," Walker wrote.
Oracle's chief legal officer, Dorian Daley, condemned the outcome. "The Google platform just got bigger and market power greater. The barriers to entry higher and the ability to compete lower. They stole Java and spent a decade litigating as only a monopolist can," she wrote in a statement.
In 2016, a San Francisco jury found that Google had not violated copyright laws because it had made fair use of the code. But in 2018, a specialized appeals court in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, disagreed with that assessment.
SUPREME COURT STEPS IN
The appeals court sent the case back for a trial to determine how much Google would have to pay in damages, and Google asked the Supreme Court to step in.
When the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, it said it would answer two questions: whether the 11,000 lines of software code at issue were copyrightable and, if they were, whether Google's use of them was subject to the fair-use exception.
Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority, answered only the second question.
"Given the rapidly changing technological, economic and business-related circumstances, we believe we should not answer more than is necessary to resolve the parties' dispute," he wrote. "We shall assume, but purely for argument's sake, that" the code "falls within the definition of that which can be copyrighted."
Breyer said Google was protected by the "fair use" exception to copyright protections.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh joined the majority opinion. Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not participate in the case, which was argued before she joined the court.
In dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Samuel Alito Jr., said leapfrogging the first question was a grave analytical misstep.
Thomas said the company had a case. As a result of its copying, he wrote, Google "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 dispute centers on the technical way software developers use application programming interfaces. That's the computer code that enables websites and applications to work together. The interfaces also reduce the amount of basic computer coding developers need to write with each program.
Breyer used what he called a "far-fetched" analogy to describe what the contested code did. "Imagine that you can, via certain keystrokes, instruct a robot to move to a particular file cabinet, to open a certain drawer, and to pick out a specific recipe," he wrote.
"With the proper recipe in hand, the robot then moves to your kitchen and gives it to a cook to prepare the dish," Breyer said.
Google's use of the code, he added, created something new. "It seeks to expand the use and usefulness of Android-based smartphones," Breyer wrote.
Nor did Google copy too much of Oracle's code. The 11,000 lines at issue, he wrote, amounted to 0.4% of the relevant universe of code.
Thomas wrote that Google had justified theft in the name of convenience.
"A Broadway musical script needs actors and singers to invest time learning and rehearsing it," he wrote. "But a theater cannot copy a script -- the rights to which are held by a smaller theater -- simply because it wants to entice actors to switch theaters and because copying the script is more efficient than requiring the actors to learn a new one."
Information for this article was contributed by Adam Liptak of The New York Times, by Jessica Gresko of The Associated Press, and by Robert Barnes, Jay Greene and Gerrit De Vynck of The Washington Post.