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 picture using an iPhone and store it in Google Photos and edit it on a Microsoft laptop,” said Google’s chief legal officer, Kent Walker. “The little pieces of code that make that possible, the software interfaces, are like standardized plugs and sockets that help programs know how to work together smoothly.”
Google has won the support of several tech companies, including Microsoft, which argued in its own brief that the appeals court ruling in Oracle’s favor “risks upsetting long-settled expectations” that have allowed the tech industry to flourish by enabling programs to interoperate.
Oracle counters that the development of the Java code was original and creative, and deserves copyright protection. And Oracle general counsel Dorian Daley disputes the notion that the appeals court ruling will stifle innovation.
“It all seems a little overblown,” Daley said.
The solicitor general, who represents the federal government before the court, filed a brief in support of Oracle’s case and will present an oral argument on the company’s behalf today. Oracle has long had a close relationship with the Trump administration, and separately, is seeking to secure a stake in the popular video app, TikTok, which has sought U.S. investors to stave off a ban in the country over the president’s security concerns.
Rachel Lerman contributed to this report.