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Why the Supreme Court’s ruling for Google over Oracle is a win for innovation

April 5, 2021, 9:44 PM UTC

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After a 10-year legal battle, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday that Google did not violate Oracle’s copyrights related to the Java programming language. But the momentous case that attracted briefs from many major tech companies and computer scientists may end up as a mere footnote in the history of software.

That’s because the court’s opinion in favor of Google leaves intact how software developers have largely worked for decades, copying parts of existing applications that trigger functions and features and adding them to new ones. Known as application programming interfaces, or APIs, the triggers let one company’s hardware or software interact with those from another’s. For example, reusing APIs allows different kinds of devices to connect to the Internet or the same cloud software app to run on the servers of Amazon, Google, or Microsoft.

Companies including Microsoft, IBM’s Red Hat, and Mozilla filed briefs in favor of Google’s position, warning that upholding Oracle’s demands would make it much harder for new software development.

“It’s a good decision for interoperability of software,” says Harvard University law professor Rebecca Tushnet, who wrote a friend of the court brief urging just such a ruling. Allowing the sharing of APIs without too much copyright protection should result in “increasing the creation and dissemination of new works.”

“This decision is a huge win for developers and consumers,” Stan Adams, open Internet counsel for the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology, noted in a statement. “When software is interoperable—meaning it can talk to other software programs—it is easier to innovate and build new services.”

Not everyone was satisfied that the court’s ruling settled the issue sufficiently to avoid future lawsuits, however. The Supreme Court decision assumed that APIs may be subject to copyright protection, but it found that Google’s copying was an allowable “fair use” under the law.

Some legal experts had hoped the court would rule definitively that APIs, which tell a program what to do, but not how to do it, wouldn’t be protected by copyrights at all. Ruling that APIs couldn’t be copyrighted is “a bright line on which new entrants to a market can rely,” Duke University law professor James Boyle, wrote on Twitter. The court’s ducking the issue and relying on fair use could be “messier and more expensive” for any company that copies APIs in the future.

Oracle, which was seeking billions of dollars in damages, was also unhappy with the ruling. “The Google platform just got bigger and market power greater,” the company said in a statement. “This behavior is exactly why regulatory authorities around the world and in the United States are examining Google’s business practices.”

Google unsurprisingly welcomed the decision. “The decision gives legal certainty to the next generation of developers whose new products and services will benefit consumers,” the company said in a statement.

The win at the Supreme Court marked the third major victory for Google over producers of copyrighted material, former Google lawyer Alexander Macgillivray noted. In addition to Monday’s case, in 2016, the Supreme Court let stand an appeals court ruling allowing Google’s book scanning project as fair use in a copyright challenge filed by authors. And in 2013, a district court ruled that YouTube wasn’t responsible for copyrighted clips uploaded to the service in a lawsuit filed by Viacom. The case was settled without further appeals.

“One thing that may be overlooked is that Google could take those stands (use its rights under copyright law) because it had money and other resources available to it,” tweeted Macgillivray, who also served for more than two years as U.S. deputy chief technology officer in the Obama administration, on Monday. Google likely spent over $100 million on each case, he said. “Those abilities are not available to most people.”