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Fair Use Doctrine in the Case of Google v. Oracle

Written By: Tess Beimler

This year, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc.,[1] a case with litigation spanning over ten years, and concerning two incredibly influential tech companies.[2]

The heart of this case involves a copyright owned by Oracle covering a computer software known as Java SE. Google sought to implement a software platform for their Android cellular devices that was similar in nature to Java programming language to help make  operating their system easier and more familiar.[3] Google duplicated approximately 11,500 lines of code from the Java SE platform .[4]

The legal issues identified by the lower courts were two-fold: (1) whether Java SE’s lines of code were copyrightable in the first place; and (2) whether Google infringed upon said copyright, or whether they were exempt from liability due to the fair use doctrine.[5] The U.S. Supreme Court reviewed both aforementioned legal issues.[6]

On April 5, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court issued their long-anticipated opinion, finding in favor of Google that its duplication of certain sections of Oracle’s code was within the boundaries of the fair use doctrine and that Google was exempt from copyright liability.[7] However, the U.S. Supreme Court directly chose not to address the issue of whether the sections of code were in fact copyrightable but hypothetically assumed that the sections of codes were copyrightable to address the issue of fair use.[8]

In its opinion, the Court leaned heavily on the fundamental Constitutional principle to which copyright is grounded,[9] explaining that Google exercised innovation and creativity by inventing, via transformative measures, a new mobile device operating platform through the Android software, incentivizing further development in the marketplace.[10] The U.S. Supreme Court made a critical notation on the breadth of Google’s copying, noting the minimal amount of code copied and that the “substantiality factor” weighs in favor of fair use under similar circumstances.[11]

The outcome of this case is significant to copyright law as it balances, and may affect, the often competing interests of innovation with the monopolization of larger tech companies encouraging a lack of competition within the marketplace. [12] Additionally, the Court chose not to decide upon the issue of whether the sections of code were in fact copyrightable in the first place, leaving room for further, related litigation regarding the copyrightability of software code.[13]

[1] Google LLC v. Oracle Am., Inc., 141 S. Ct. 1183 (2021).

[2] 2021 Intellectual Property Primer: Cases to Watch this Year, Vorys (Jan. 6, 2021) https://www.vorys.com/publications-2834.html [https://perma.cc/3NQ7-6ELC].

[3] Google, 141 S. Ct. at 1187.

[4] Id.

[5] Id. at 1190.

[6] Id. at 1195.

[7] Id. at 1209.

[8] Id. at 1197.

[9] Id. at 1195.

[10] Id. at 1203.

[11] Id. at 1204-05.

[12] Jessica Goedel & Jaci L. Overmann, United States Supreme Court Finds Google’s Use of Oracle’s Software Was Fair Use, Dinsmore (Apr. 23, 2021)https://www.dinsmore.com/publications/united-states-supreme-court-finds-googles-use-of-oracles-software-was-fair-use/ [https://perma.cc/5MP7-489M].

[13] Id.

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