A historic, multibillion-dollar lawsuit between Oracle and Google may come down to the jumbled attempts on Wednesday by eight Supreme Court justices to find an appropriate analogy to describe common computer code.
From grocery stores to restaurant menus to QWERTY keyboards, the nation’s most esteemed jurists applied metaphor after metaphor to try to understand whether Google’s decision a decade ago to re-use software initially created by Oracle-owned Sun Microsystems violated copyright law.
The rapid-fire string of analogies, along with the wide range of justices’ questions, left the case’s fate in doubt. The outcome could determine the future of software development in the United States — and, by extension, the future of a world that’s increasingly dominated by digital services and technology.
The law treats computer programs as generally copyrightable. But the type of code at issue in this case is not, Google argued, because it involves little creative expression and is simply invoked by developers as a kind of shorthand in their code to refer to much longer snippets of other instructions.
These helper programs, known as software interfaces, application programming interfaces or APIs, are a ubiquitous feature of today’s networked digital economy, where different apps need to be able to work together and share information. Oracle asserts that this type of code, at least as created by Sun Microsystems, is nevertheless an expressive work that is eligible for copyright protections.
For an hour and a half, the justices asked why Google had