WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court wrestled at length Wednesday over a $9 billion copyright battle between tech giants Google and Oracle that has gone on for a decade.
But after an extended, 90-minute oral argument conducted by telephone in deference to the COVID-19 pandemic, several justices indicated their solution might be to send the case back to a lower court for even more review.
A majority of justices appeared to doubt that Google had the right to copy some of Oracle’s Java programming language to create Android, the world’s most popular mobile software. But they worried that a ruling against Google could set back software innovation by requiring costly duplication.
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“Cracking the safe may be the only way to get the money that you want, but that doesn’t mean you can do it,” Chief Justice John Roberts told Google’s attorney, Thomas Goldstein.
But when it was Oracle lawyer E. Joshua Rosenkranz’s turn, Roberts said Google’s actions seemed more efficient, less costly and better for consumers.
“What choice did they have without having to spend billions of dollars, which would be wasteful and impede the development of the high-tech business?” Roberts asked.
The case has been closely watched in the technology industry because it could change how software gets built: through “open source,” code that’s made freely available, or with code that must be licensed.
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Oracle is seeking $9 billion in a lawsuit that stretches back to 2010 and has already reached the Supreme Court once, when it refused to get involved. It claims Google violated its copyright on application program interfaces – parts of the Java programming language that help software programs talk to each other.
Google acknowledged it used 11,000 lines of Java software code, less than 0.1% of the 15 million lines of code in its Android software. But it argued that its use of Java was covered by rules that permit “fair use” of copyrighted material.
A federal district court ruled in favor of Google after a jury trial, but a federal appeals court decided that Google’s use of the Java software “was not fair as a matter of law” and ordered a trial on damages.
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The court’s conservative justices seemed to lean toward Oracle’s side in the dispute.
“Under your argument, all computer code is at risk of losing protection,” Associate Justice Samuel Alito told Goldstein.
Associate Justice Stephen Breyer appeared most aligned with Google. He likened the Java software to a method of operation, rather than a computer program, comparing it to a typewriter keyboard or a telephone switchboard.
“You could have done it in 1,000 ways. But, once you did it, all those operators across the world learned that system, and you don’t want to give a copyright holder a monopoly of telephone systems,” Breyer said.
But several justices wondered if the appeals court was wrong to reconsider facts determined by a jury, which could be reason to send the case back for additional review.
“Why shouldn’t we remand the case for consideration of it under a more deferential standard of review normally applied to jury findings and general verdicts?” Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Supreme Court wrestles with Google-Oracle copyright battle that could upend tech industry