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.
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