WASHINGTON (CN) – The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to weigh in on a high-stakes tech battle between Google and Oracle over whether companies can copyright certain types of computer code.
The case has been billed as one of the most consequential copyright fights to come through the federal courts in years and dates back more than a decade to when Google was in the early stages of developing its Android platform for smartphones.
Google’s engineers developed Android based on the programming language Java, which was released on an open-source basis in the 1990s. The language includes an application programming interface, or API, that gives developers access to prewritten lines of code known as methods allowing them to quickly script common tasks, making it easier to put together complicated pieces of software.
Google initially tried to work out an agreement with Java’s developer to license its programming platform. Unable to do so, however, it instead relied on the open-source language to build out Android.
Because Java is one of the most popular programming languages, Google says its engineers needed to exactly replicate its lines of code that label the methods, called declarations, so developers who wanted to create applications for Android devices would not need to learn a new language first.
Though they replicated the declarations exactly, Google’s engineers wrote the lines of code that actually implement the simple tasks the methods are meant to perform so they would fit the unique needs of smartphones.
In 2010, tech giant Oracle bought the company that developed Java and quickly brought suit against Google for copyright and patent infringement. Java’s developer never objected to Google using its language to develop Android meanwhile, despite knowing for years that it was doing so.
Some of Oracle’s patent claims were thrown out by a federal judge, while a jury ruled against the company on others, but its copyright claims lived on. Oracle claimed that by copying the API declarations, Google had infringed on its copyrights.
After a jury hung on the copyright-infringement question, a federal judge ruled the declarations were not eligible for copyright protection under federal law.
But the Federal Circuit revived the case in 2014, sending it back to the jury. The jury this time ruled in Google’s favor after a two-week trial, finding Google’s use of the declarations was fair use.
The Federal Circuit weighed in again in 2018 and reversed the jury’s verdict.
In asking the justices to take up the case, Google said it raises questions critical to innovation in the software industry and that the Federal Circuit’s decision runs against how courts have traditionally treated copyright protections for code.
“The Federal Circuit has upended the computer industry’s longstanding expectation that developers are free to use software interfaces to build new computer programs,” the company wrote in its petition.
The Trump administration had sided with Oracle in asking the court not to take up the case.
Deborah Hellinger, the head of global corporate communications at Oracle, said in a statement Google has it backwards and that ruling against Oracle would stifle innovation by giving companies open license to copy large swaths of code.
“We are confident the Supreme Court will preserve long established copyright protections for original software and reject Google’s continuing efforts to avoid responsibility for copying Oracle’s innovations,” Hellinger said. “We believe the court will reject any reasoning that permits copying verbatim vast amounts of software code, used for the same purpose and same way as the original. That is not ‘transformative,’ and certainly not fair use.”
Google Senior Vice President for Global Affairs Kent Walker said the company is glad it will be able to make its claims to the high court.
“We welcome the Supreme Court’s decision to review the case and we hope that the court reaffirms the importance of software interoperability in American competitiveness,” Walker said in a statement. “Developers should be able to create applications across platforms and not be locked into one company’s software.”