After nearly a decade, Oracle’s copyright lawsuit against Google is close to settling an important question: can you own the basic commands of a coding language? The Supreme Court will reach an answer over the coming months, but a long list of academics, advocacy groups, and businesses — including some of Google’s competitors — are urging it to throw out Oracle’s claims.
Outside groups filed over two dozen supporting briefs in Oracle v. Google yesterday, the overwhelming majority arguing that a Google loss would hurt computing as a whole. IBM and Microsoft both filed on behalf of Google, as did the CCIA and the Internet Association, two trade groups that represent a large swathe of the tech industry. A group of 72 intellectual property scholars and 83 computer scientists added their support. Even some less intuitive groups filed briefs — like the Auto Care Association and the printer cartridge company Static Control Components, which are also backing Google.
The case’s core arguments are well-trodden by now. In the mid-’00s, Google built its Android operating system with support for Sun Microsystems’ Java platform. It avoided licensing Java by largely building its own version of the underlying code — but it couldn’t avoid reproducing some lines that were key to the language. When Oracle acquired Sun in 2010, it claimed that Google had violated Java-related patents and copyrights. Google said that these lines comprised a tiny fraction of Android, though, and that they were the only way to let developers write functional code for Java.
A court agreed with Google in 2012, permanently removing the patent claims from the case. But Oracle appealed the copyright ruling, and the feud descended into legal purgatory. A Federal Circuit court — known for specializing in patent, not copyright, law — declared that Oracle should get a new trial. A new trial ended with another Google win, Oracle appealed the decision, and the same court overturned the ruling again, setting Google up for a potential multibillion-dollar loss.
Beyond the money, experts have warned that a Google loss could harm the whole computing ecosystem. It could allow companies to copyright and restrict the basic software interfaces that let third-party developers work with their platforms. One amicus brief pithily compares these interfaces to the functions on a remote control — if they become proprietary, companies could “effectively mandate the use of a separate remote control for each device in one’s home.”
That’s why companies like Microsoft — which aren’t shy about criticizing Google in other areas — have lined up behind it. The current ruling “elevates functional code to the same level of copyright protection as the creative expression in a novel,” Microsoft writes in its brief. But modern software development “accepts and expects that much functional code can be reused by follow-on developers,” which requires flexible copyright law. Similarly, IBM asserts that “interoperability is the very foundation of the internet and of countless devices and services that depend upon it.”
Oracle, meanwhile, has exhorted the court to “reject Google’s continuing efforts to avoid responsibility for copying Oracle’s innovations.” The company has garnered less approval — none of the filings yesterday supported it, although two were neutral to both parties. But it was backed last year by Trump’s Solicitor General Noel Francisco, who urged the Supreme Court (unsuccessfully) to let Oracle’s victory stand.
A lot of the points in this week’s briefs have been made before. But after years of muddling through lower courts, this is the endgame for Oracle and Google. And the Supreme Court will have to decide on two big, related questions. First of all, can you copyright code like Oracle’s API? If not, Google (along with many other developers) is in the clear. If the code can be copyrighted, the court moves on to a second question: does Google’s borrowing count as fair use?
If Google wins on either of these questions, the fight is effectively over. If Oracle wins, the companies will likely fight over how much Google should pay in damages — but the larger question will be settled, and not in the way that much of the tech world wants.