Supreme Court considers software copyrights

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.



a large building: The U.S. Supreme Court stands on September 28, 2020 in Washington, DC. This week Seventh U.S. Circuit Court Judge Amy Coney Barrett, U.S. President Donald Trump's nominee to the Supreme Court, will begin meeting with Senators as she seeks to be confirmed before the presidential election. (Photo by Al Drago/Getty Images)


© Al Drago/Getty Images
The U.S. Supreme Court stands on September 28, 2020 in Washington, DC. This week Seventh U.S. Circuit Court Judge Amy Coney Barrett, U.S. President Donald Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, will begin meeting with Senators as she seeks to be confirmed before the presidential election. (Photo by Al Drago/Getty Images)

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.

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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

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,”

U.S. Supreme Court divided over Google’s bid to end Oracle’s Android copyright lawsuit

(Reuters) — The U.S. Supreme Court appeared divided on Wednesday as it considered whether to protect Alphabet Inc’s Google from a long-running lawsuit by Oracle accusing it of infringing Oracle copyrights to build the Android operating system that runs most of the world’s smartphones.

The shorthanded court, down one justice following last month’s death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, heard oral arguments in Google’s appeal of a lower court ruling reviving the lawsuit in which Oracle has sought at least $8 billion in damages.

Some of the eight justices expressed concern that Google simply copied Oracle’s software code instead of innovating and creating its own for mobile devices. Others emphasized that siding with Oracle could give software developers too much power with potentially harmful effects on the technology industry.

A jury cleared Google in 2016, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit overturned that decision in 2018, finding that Google’s inclusion of Oracle’s software code in Android was not permissible under U.S. copyright law.

Oracle accused Google of copying thousands of lines of computer code from its popular Java programming language without a license in order to make Android, a competing platform that has harmed Oracle’s business.

Google lawyer Thomas Goldstein told the justices that the disputed Java code should not receive copyright protection because it was the “the only way” to create new programs using the programming language.

“The language only permits us to use those,” Goldstein said.

Chief Justice John Roberts suggested Google still should have paid Oracle for a license to Java.

“Cracking the safe may be the only way to get the money that you want, but that doesn’t mean you can do it,” Roberts said.

Justice Neil Gorsuch questioned Goldstein on whether Google had simply piggybacked on Oracle’s innovation.

Gorsuch asked,

Today’s Supreme Court Hearing On A $9 Billion Case Involving Oracle And Google Could Reshape The Software Industry

In a landmark moment in the history of the U.S. software industry, the Supreme Court held a hearing today on a long-running legal dispute that pits tech giants Oracle and Google against one another.

The case centers around whether or not a key foundation of today’s increasingly software-driven economy—blocks of code known as “application programming interfaces”, or APIs—is subject to copyright protection. Oracle claims Google infringed copyright when it used elements of the Oracle-owned Java programming language to build its Android operating system, which now powers billions of smartphones and other devices. Google denies the claim, which involves about 11,500 lines of code out of millions of new lines that it wrote to create Android. The two companies have been battling one another in the courts for over a decade, with Oracle demanding $9 billion in compensation.

The outcome of this epic legal fight matters because APIs, which enable different software applications to talk to one another and swap information, are essential for building larger systems. Developers at startups and large companies have been copying them for free for years and using them to knit together complex tapestries of applications that power online commerce platforms, advanced manufacturing facilities and other elements of modern digital economies.

If the Supreme Court ultimately rules Google did infringe Oracle’s copyright when it copied the Java APIs in question, it could trigger a tsunami of litigation as other companies seek payments for their APIs too. Google’s supporters, which include Microsoft and IBM, argue this will prove a costly headache for many companies. Some fear it will also have a chilling effect on startups and further boost the immense power of cash-rich tech platforms—including, ironically, Google itself—that are already under intense political and regulatory scrutiny.

“Huge corporations like

What Is Fair Use? Google vs. Oracle Brings Decade-Long Copyright Battle To Supreme Court

KEY POINTS

  • Oral arguments were held before the Supreme Court over the copyright case between Oracle and Google
  • Google stands to pay Oracle nearly $9 billion for 11,000 lines of code in Android software if the court rules in Oracle’s favor
  • Big tech is throwing in behind Google while media and entertainment companies and the Trump administration is backing Oracle

The Supreme Court faces upending the tech industry by determining whether Google stole code from Oracle in building its Android operating system in a case that could redefine the meaning of the fair use doctrine. All eight justices on Wednesday grilled the tech giants’ legal teams as well the U.S. deputy solicitor general in a potentially far-reaching case.

Google said its incorporation of 11,500 lines of Oracle Java code constitutes fair use, while Oracle argued the action violated its ownership rights. The lawsuit has been working its way through the courts for a decade with Oracle claiming it is owed $9 billion for use of its code.

Google attorney Thomas Goldstein said Google used only the parts of the code that could not be changed but had originated the rest. Oracle attorney Joshua Rosenkranz said Google had other options, even if they were more expensive.

“The Copyright Act does not give Google a pass just because it would be expensive to recreate our expression,” Rosenkranz said.

Along with Microsoft, tech companies like Mozilla and IBM threw their support behind Google by arguing tech companies need the freedom to build new programming platforms without worrying about licenses and copyrights.

Several news outlets, entertainment companies and the Trump administration, however, put their weight behind Oracle, arguing these industries rely on the enforcement of strong copyright laws.

“We are told if we agree with Oracle we will ruin the tech industry in the