Supreme Court Steps Into Google-Oracle Copyright Fight

November 18, 2019 by Dan McCue
Google headquarters on Jan. 24, 2016, in Mountain View, Calif. Many tech companies in Silicon Valley are coming under scrutiny from U.S. antitrust enforcers. (Kristoffer Tripplaar/Sipa USA/TNS)

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court agreed Friday to decide a long-running copyright dispute between technology giants Oracle and Google.

The case stems from Google’s development of its hugely popular Android operating system by using Oracle’s Java programming language.

Oracle claims Google owes it roughly $8 billion for its reuse of “declarations” that introduce short-cut programs written for the Java programming language.

According to court documents, Google reused the declarations to make it easier for programmers familiar with the Java language to write applications for Google’s Android operating system.

A federal appeals court found that Google unfairly used Java without paying for it, the second appellate ruling in Oracle’s favor. A trial court has yet to assess damages.

The justices agreed to review the appeals court ruling, and arguments are expected early next year.

The first Android phone went on sale in 2008 and Google says more than 2 billion mobile devices now use Android.

The dispute stretches back to 2010, when Oracle filed suit over Google’s use of 11,500 lines of Java code. In the first of two trials, a federal judge ruled that so-called “application programming interfaces” weren’t protected by copyright.

After the appeals court overturned that ruling, a jury found in a second trial that Google had made “fair use” of the programming code.

The federal government had recommended that the court deny Google’s petition, expressing the government’s support for the Federal Circuit’s rulings.

In their petition to the Supreme Court, attorneys for Google described the Federal Circuit decisions in Oracle’s favor as a “devastating one-two punch at the software industry.”

“If allowed to stand, the Federal Circuit’s approach will upend the longstanding expectation of software developers that they are free to use existing software interfaces to build new computer programs,” the lawyers said. “Developers won’t be able to use free languages like Java to create programs, it said, “a result that will undermine both competition and innovation.”

Oracle responded by arguing its APIs are freely available to those who want to build applications that run on computers and mobile devices, but that the company demands a license for use of the shortcuts for a competing platform or to embed them in an electronic device.

“Google also undermined ‘write once, run anywhere’ by deliberately making Android incompatible with the Java platform, meaning Android apps run only on Android devices and Java apps do not run on Android devices,” Oracle’s attorneys said. “In short, Android ‘replaced’ Java and ‘prevented’ Oracle from licensing and competing in the developing smartphone market.”

In a statement,  Google senior vice president Kent Walker said the company welcomed the justices’ decision to hear the appeal.

“Developers should be able to create applications across platforms and not be locked into one company’s software,” he said.

Oracle spokeswoman Deborah Hellinger said the company is confident the Supreme Court will preserve software copyrights and “reject Google’s continuing efforts to avoid responsibility for copying Oracle’s innovations.”

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