Oracle and Google’s Supreme Court showdown was a battle of metaphors

Google v. Oracle, a decade-long war over the future of software, neared its end in the Supreme Court this week as a battle of metaphors. Over the course of two hours, justices and attorneys compared Java — the coding language that Oracle acquired in 2010 — to a restaurant menu, a hit song, a football team, an accounting system, the instructions for finding a blend of spices in a grocery store, a safecracking manual, and the QWERTY keyboard layout.

“Prediction: The side that wins the metaphor battle will win the case,” tweeted University of Oklahoma College of Law professor Sarah Burstein.

The reliance on familiar analogies wasn’t necessarily surprising. Google v. Oracle covers a complex question: what elements of computer code can be copyrighted, and if that code is covered by copyright, when it’s still legal to use pieces of it under fair use. The argument dates back a decade to when Google reverse-engineered Java while building its Android platform. In the process, it copied the “structure, sequence, and organization” of some Java application programming interface (API) packages, which enable basic computing actions. Oracle sued, and after multiple trials and a coronavirus-related delay, the Supreme Court heard the argument this week.

After a morning of long-delayed oral arguments on Wednesday, both sides declared a win. Google head of global affairs Kent Walker said the court “confirmed the importance” of the legal rights protecting software interoperability, while Oracle general counsel Dorian Daley declared that the court would “agree with us that all software is covered by copyright.” Tiffany Li, a fellow at Yale Law School’s Information Society Project, cautioned against reading too much into the proceedings. “It’s difficult to guess how a case will turn out based on the arguments,”