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Final Reckoning in Copyright Case Poised to Upend Coding Practices

The Supreme Court laid bare the so-called copyright lawsuit of the decade on Wednesday: a clash between Google and Oracle with the potential to rewrite the rules of computer coding.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court laid bare the so-called copyright lawsuit of the decade on Wednesday: a clash between Google and Oracle with the potential to rewrite the rules of computer coding. 

Dialing into the 96-minute remote hearing without Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died on Sept. 18, the eight justices used a litany of hypotheticals to make sense of the deeply technical concepts, alternately comparing the fought-over lines of code to football playbooks, restaurant menus and grocery store produce.

The case that has programmers holding their breath hinges on whether the fair-use doctrine applies to copying the APIs — short for application programming interfaces — that developers use to ensure different companies’ products can function together without error, for example using apps like Facebook on a smartphone. 

For years, software programmers have copied lines of code developed by others. At issue in this case, however, is whether Google needed a license to use prewritten lines of code while developing the Android platform.

Google’s engineers built Android using the programming language Java, released on an open-source basis in the 1990s. 

Oracle bought the company that developed Java in 2010, then sued Google for copying over 11,000 lines of the programming language.

Across the bench, the justices on Wednesday parsed warnings from tech companies and computer scientists in dozens of amicus briefs that a ruling against Google will devastate the software industry.

Yet as Justice Brett Kavanaugh noted, it has been six years since the Federal Circuit first sided with Oracle, and there is no sign that the “sky had fallen” on coders.

The Justice Department has urged the high court to let Oracle’s win stand. Explaining the government’s stance Wednesday, Deputy U.S. Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart argued that ruling for Oracle would not mean the downfall of the software industry, whereas failing to do so would penalize the company for marketplace success. 

Oracle is demanding $9 billion in damages, calling the copyright infringement clear cut.

Google attorney Thomas C. Goldstein, with Goldstein and Russell, argued Wednesday that Oracle was invoking patent, not copyright, protection. 

With only one way to write the declaring code, Goldstein argued that Oracle was asking the high court to let it monopolize the functions made possible through its APIs, a right only made possible through a patent. 

“Cracking the safe may be the only way to get the money that you want. But that doesn’t mean that you can do it,” Chief Justice John Roberts said in response to the argument. 

Still Goldstein held to his defense that Oracle wanted to “lock the developers” into using only Java.

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