A decade-long legal battle between Silicon Valley giants Oracle and Google over software rights heads to the Supreme Court on Wednesday in a case with huge implications for copyright in the digital age.
The lower court has scheduled oral arguments in the case that dates back to a 2010 lawsuit filed by Oracle seeking billions from Google for the use of the Java programming language in its Android mobile operating system.
Two separate jury trials ended with a determination that Google’s “software interface” did not unfairly use Java code, saving the Internet giant from a potential multibillion-dollar verdict.
But an appeals court in 2018 disagreed, saying the software’s interface is entitled to copyright protection, prompting Google to take the case to the highest court in the US.
Oracle, which in 2010 obtained the rights to Java when it acquired Sun Microsystems, which had supported Google’s use of Java for Android, sought $9 billion (approximately Rs. 65,981 crores) in damages in its original claim.
Google and many Silicon Valley allies have argued that extending copyright protection to bits of code, called application programming interfaces, or APIs, would threaten innovation in the rapidly evolving digital world.
According to Google, a win for Oracle “would subvert the long-held expectation of software developers that they are free to use existing computer software interfaces to create new programs.”
The Developers Alliance, a not-for-profit group that includes app makers and other technology companies, filed a supporting paper making a similar argument, arguing that “without shared APIs, every device and program is an island, and modern software development simply cannot happen.”
The monopoly issue
The American Antitrust Institute argued in an amicus brief that allowing Oracle to retain copyright protection “may slow innovation and competition in software-dependent markets” and “may cement software-based monopolies”.
The hearing comes amid heightened scrutiny from big tech companies and with Google having seen its fortune and dominance grow in the online world.
Political overtones are also apparent in light of Oracle founder Larry Ellison’s close ties to US President Donald Trump, and Google faces an antitrust investigation.
The US government has filed a petition supporting Oracle, arguing that copyright cannot be taken away from creators simply because they exist in digital form.
Google “copied 11,500 lines of copyrighted (Oracle) code” as well as the “complex architecture of the 37 packages in question,” a Justice Department summary said.
The Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, said in a court filing that allowing Google to get away with “intellectual property theft” would make it difficult to protect any digital property from Chinese misappropriation.
Also on Oracle’s side, the American Association of Publishers argued that weakening copyright protection would make it more difficult “to create and disseminate original works of authorship”.
The two companies will argue over the issue of “fair use” of copyrighted material for a “transformative” purpose. This pattern that allows someone to create a completely new work does not require permission or licensing from the original author.
Google argued that a jury had already determined that its actions represented fair use and that courts should honor that decision without prolonging litigation.
Oracle, in its latest summary, stated that fair use “depends on legal judgments that balance the competing interests” of the parties.
A ruling by the court, which is hearing the case remotely with eight instead of nine judges following Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, will likely come to a decision in several weeks or months.
A clear ruling for Google could end the marathon legal battle, while a ruling for Oracle could send the case back to lower courts and a possible new trial.
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