Supreme Court Hears Google v Oracle Copyright Dispute

Whichever way it falls, the outcome of the suit will have a significant bearing on the future of the US tech industry.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court of the United States heard arguments from Google and Oracle on a decade-long copyright dispute that carries far-reaching implications for Silicon Valley.

Oracle is seeking billions of dollars in damages over what it claims to be Google’s wrongful use of around 11,500 lines of code in building its Android mobile operating system, which were replicated from Sun Microsystems’ Java app programming interface.

After acquiring Sun in 2010, Oracle quickly sued Google, arguing that its use of the code violated its ownership rights. Though a San Francisco jury found in 2016 that Google had made “fair use” of the code and therefore not violated copyright law, this assessment was challenged by the Unitd States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in 2018.

Google lawyer Thomas Goldstein told justices that the lines of code copied were purely functional, meaning they did not fall under creative expression and could not be copyrighted. He also said that Google had written all of the code that could be expressed differently from the lines copied from Oracle, but that for some purposes the code would have to be identical. “There are no substitutes,” he said.

The justices had previously been made aware of concerns from Microsoft and unaffiliated computer scientists that ruling in Oracle’s favour could have knock-on consequences for the sector. Chief Justice John Roberts said at one point to attorney Malcolm Stewart: “We are told if we agree with Oracle we will ruin the tech industry in the United States.”

However, concerns were also raised about the implications of ruling that the Java script could not be copyrighted. “I’m concerned that, under your argument, all computer code is at risk of losing protection,” Justice Samuel Alito told Goldstein.

Both Oracle and Google are giants in the tech industry, with headquarters in Silicon Valley and combined annual revenues of around $200 billion. Their arguments were conducted by teleconference due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

A ruling on the case is expected to come by the end of June 2021.

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