WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court considered on Wednesday whether Google should have to pay Oracle billions of dollars in a long-running lawsuit over software used on many of the world’s smartphones, wrestling during a lively argument with the potentially enormous implications of what has been called the copyright case of the decade.
Several justices noted how consequential a decision in the case could be. “I’m concerned,” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. told a lawyer for Google, “that, under your argument, all computer code is at risk of losing protection.”
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. noted the opposite concern. “We’re told that if we agree with Oracle, we will ruin our tech industry in the United States,” he said.
The justices heard the argument by telephone, and they used a series of low-tech analogies to test the two sides’ arguments. Their questions included ones on safecracking, football playbooks, typewriter keyboards,
The case, which has broad ramifications for the software industry, has bounced around various courts over the years. In 2016, jurors ruled Google’s use of the Java code was permitted as “fair use” under federal copyright law. Two years later, a federal appeals court overturned that, ruling that there is “nothing fair about taking a copyrighted work verbatim and using it for the same purpose and function as the original in a competing platform.”
The dispute centers on the technical way software developers use application programming interfaces, or APIs. That’s the computer code that enables websites and applications to work together. APIs also reduce the amount of basic computer coding developers need to write with each program.
Google contends that it only used the pieces of Java code that it could not re-create when developing Android.
“Software programs have always worked with each other, that’s why you can take a