Supreme Court Backs Google in Copyright Fight With Oracle

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Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. 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 A. Alito Jr., said leapfrogging the first question was a grave analytical misstep. “The court wrongly sidesteps the principal question that we were asked to answer,” he wrote, adding that he would have ruled that the code was protected by copyright laws.

The majority’s approach was inexplicable, Justice Thomas wrote, and its rationale — that technology is rapidly changing — was odd, as change “has been a constant where computers are concerned.”

Justice 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.”

Justice Breyer wrote that the four fair-use factors set out in the Copyright Act all supported Google. The nature of the code, he wrote, “is inextricably bound together with a general system, the division of computing tasks, that no one claims is a proper subject of copyright.”

Google’s use of the code, he added, created something new. “It seeks to expand the use and usefulness of Android-based smartphones,” Justice Breyer wrote. “Its new product offers programmers a highly creative and innovative tool for a smartphone environment.”

Nor did Google copy too much of Oracle’s code. The 11,000 lines of code at issue, he wrote, amounted to 0.4 percent of the relevant universe of code.