Google v. Oracle – The Monumental Copyright Case that the Supreme Court Got Wrong

Post Authored by Natalie Elizaroff

It’s officially a loss for the little guys. Big Corp wins again.

Counsel for Oracle summarized it best:

“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. This behavior is exactly why regulatory authorities around the world and in the United States are examining Google’s business practices.”

—Dorian Daley, Executive Vice President and General Counsel [1]

On one hand, it’s the outcome that everyone expected and the one that tech companies were vying for – on the other hand, it still stings. This is yet another win for corporate giants and it makes it that much harder for start up companies to wedge their foot into the market.

Case Background

The Google/Oracle war goes back to 2005, shortly after Google purchased Android. Google and Sun Microsystems, the developer of Java, were discussing the licensing of Java for Android. Sun Microsystems offered a licensing deal to Google for $30-$50 million (a fraction of the $9 billion in damages that Oracle requested) and some shared control of Android along with the licensing fee. [2] Discussions went nowhere because Google wanted more control of the Java language and Sun Microsystems refused because Google essentially wanted to transform the language to the point that would prevent it from being inter-operable with other systems/versions. [3] So – after discussions reached a standstill, Google went ahead and found its own solution, it copied the entirety of Java’s interface from 37 modules. These 37 modules are packages that contain anywhere from hundreds to thousands of classes and methods of code (over 11,000 lines of code to be precise). [4] These have commonly been referred to as Application Programming Interfaces (“APIs”).

What are APIs?

APIs are very technical, and yet they are used everywhere. To simplify, APIs are used to perform certain tasks/retrieve data while allowing different apps and services to work together in various ways. A common, non-IT example to explain APIs takes a step into the service industry. When you go to a restaurant and order some food, you interact with the waiter. The waiter places the order for food and drinks, answers questions about the menu, brings the check, and the like. The waiter acts as an API that shields you from the complications in the kitchen. [5] Accordingly, APIs are simply intermediaries that are responsible for the interactivity that exists between programs and third parties.

Case Summary and Ruling

In 2010, Oracle brought the case against Google for patent and copyright infringement on the 37 APIs, among other facets. In the district court found that Google infringed on the 37 packages and directly copied source code. The jury could not settle the issue of “fair use” of the 37 packages, but ultimately decided that APIs were not protected by copyright.[6] By 2014, the decision was appealed, and the Federal Circuit reversed, holding that in light of the evidence and controlling precedent, the Java APIs were copyrightable. The case was sent back down to district court and despite Google requesting certiorari, Supreme Court denied.

On remand, Google argued that its use of the Oracle code was fair use and the jury returned a verdict siding with Google and agreeing that the copying of the 37 APIs constituted as fair use. Around 2016, Oracle appealed the case again where the Federal Circuit reversed the lower court’s decision, holding that that no reasonable jury could conclude that Google’s copying of over 11,000 lines of code was a fair use. [7]

By 2019, Google filed its petition for Supreme Court review once again and this time the Supreme Court agreed to weigh in on the matter. At this time, the Supreme Court was presented with two issues: 1) whether the Java SE declaring code at issue was copyrightable; and 2) whether Google’s taking of the code constituted a “fair use” freeing Google of copyright infringement liability. [8]

Ultimately, in a 6-2 decision presented by Justice Stephen Breyer, the Supreme Court ruled that Google’s use of 11,000 lines of code, copied without permission from Oracle’s Java program, constitutes fair use as a matter of law and does not require compensation.

Justice Thomas, with whom Justice Alito joins, dissenting. [9]

Oracle spent years developing a programming library that successfully attracted software developers, thus enhancing the value of Oracle’s products. Google sought a license to use the library in Android, the operating system it was developing for mobile phones. But when the companies could not agree on terms, Google simply copied verbatim 11,500 lines of code from the library. As a result, it 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.

Ramifications and Commentary

APIs have long been in conflict between expression and idea. Expressions canbe copyrighted, ideas cannot. [10] They are formed and function as source code for a particular purpose, but that does not eliminate the creativity and expression that inherently exists within the design and interactivity of the codes. Some of the content that Google copied was insignificant, but other aspects are sufficiently unique and eligible for copyright protections. As previously stated, the outcome of this case is not a surprise – but it is a frustrating blow. Google could have developed its own API for Android, but it took a shortcut and got away with copying 11,000 lines of code without having to pay for licensing or damages. Google’s payout is tenfold – not only did it win in court, but it singlehandedly opened the door for big companies to copy software code from independent developers without worrying about licensing fees.

The Supreme Court’s decision enables the corporate giants and enforces the monopolies that they hold. Copyrights should protect software and by extension, those copyrights should protect APIs. Although broad copyright of APIs could stifle some innovation, it does not overcome the fact that now companies can poach the hard work of developers without any kind of compensation.

At the end of the day, the current system of copyright, trademark, and patent laws do not adequately apply to computer software and code. These forms of technology are unique, likely to get more complicated as time goes on, and fully deserving of protection for the work that goes into their development. Oracle eloquently stated the problem by stating, “[a]pplying copyright law to computer programs is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces do not quite fit.” [11]

Legal structures are expected to change, expand, and alter based on the circumstances. If the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Oracle, it could have taken the opportunity to lay out the groundwork for the copyrightability of software code whilst preserving the inherent open-source nature that fuels development in the field. Instead, we got a decision that green lights Google’s – or any major corporation’s – copying of whatever code they want, regardless of the ramifications for the copyright owner.

[1] Oracle (Apr. 5, 2021),

[2] Jon Brodkin, Sun wanted up to $50 million from Google for Java license, Schmidt says, ars Technica (Apr. 24, 2012),

[3] Oracle Am., Inc. v. Google Inc., 872 F. Supp. 2d 974 (N.D. Cal. 2012) (“The point of contention between the parties was Google’s refusal to make the implementation of its programs compatible with the Java virtual machine or interoperable with other Java programs. Because Sun/Oracle found that position to be anathema to the “write once, run anywhere” philosophy, it did not grant Google a license to use the Java API packages.”)

[4] Madeleine Carlisle, How Google’s Big Supreme Court Victory Could Change Software Forever, TIME (Apr. 6, 2021),

[5] Bridget Poetker, What Is an API? A Straightforward Definition for Non-Developers, Learning Hub (Apr. 17, 2019),

[6] Don Macvittie, Oracle v. Google and Its Impact on APIs and Code, DevOps (Nov. 25, 2019),

[7] Brian B. Darville, Oracle v. Google, OBLON (May 29, 2019),

[8] Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc., 140 S. Ct. 520 (2019).

[9] Id.

[10] Copyright in General,

[11] Lotus Dev. Corp. v. Borland Int’l Corp., 49 F.3d 807 (1st Cir. 1995), aff’d by an equally divided court, 516 U.S. 233 (1996).

About the author:

NatalieElizaroff - Headshot

Natalie Elizaroff is a 2L at UIC John Marshall Law School. She is the President of the Video Game Law Society and Secretary of the Intellectual Property Law Society. Prior to law school, Natalie graduated with a B.S. in Molecular Biology from Loyola University Chicago. Natalie plans to take courses in U.S. Trademark Law and U.S. Patent Law and hopes to work in the Patent Clinic in the upcoming year.

Leave a Reply