“On April 5, 2021, the Supreme Court issued its opinion on the long-running litigation between Oracle and Google over the reuse of aspects of Oracle’s Java programming framework in Google’s Android mobile operating system. The majority opinion, written by Justice Breyer and joined by five of his fellow justices (Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Kagan, Sotomayor, Kavanaugh, and Gorsuch), sided with Google, saying its use was lawful because it was protected by fair use. Justice Thomas wrote a dissent, joined only by Justice Alito, arguing that Google’s use was infringing. The newest Justice, Amy Coney Barrett, did not participate in the arguments or decision of the case as it predated her joining the Court. More background on the case can be found in my earlier blog post for SPN summarizing the oral arguments.
Justice Breyer’s opinion is already a landmark for the reasons I laid out there: it is the first Supreme Court opinion to address fair use in nearly thirty years—the last one was Campbell v. Acuff-Rose in 1994. And it is the first Supreme Court opinion to address copyright’s protection for software—ever. And now we know that the opinion will be a milestone for another reason: it is a confident, erudite treatment of the issue by a Justice who has been thinking about copyright and software for more than half a century. As a law professor, Stephen Breyer earned tenure at Harvard based on his 1970 article, “The Uneasy Case for Copyright: A Study of Copyright in Books, Photocopies, and Computer Programs.” The opinion is thus a very happy coincidence: a thorny and consequential issue confronted by a subtle and experienced thinker. The results are quite encouraging for software preservation and for cultural heritage institutions and fair users generally….”