Supreme Court hears tech case in decade-long battle over copyright

The oral arguments in Google vs. Oracle center on whether Google violated copyright law involving computer code.

By Vanessa Montalbano

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in Google LLC V. Oracle America, Inc., pitting the two tech giants against each other as to whether Oracle can claim copyright protections for its Java SE code. Oracle claims Google infringed upon that right after copying parts of the code to design its Android smartphone, saying that Google owes it billions of dollars in copyright fees.

Copyright protection is mostly concerned with the expression of an idea though a tangible medium, considering that multiple people may individually arrive at the same idea. E. Joshua Rosenkranz, the lawyer representing Oracle, argues Java SE code is expressive and should therefore be protected by copyright.

Google’s lawyer, however, says the company had no choice but to copy the specific method of operations for Java’s system because it is the singular way it could be written.

“If there is only one way to do it, and you give someone a copyright on that that’s exclusive, then you are saying that person is the only one who can make the computer do the thing,” said Thomas Goldstein, representing Google, during the arguments.

If Oracle wanted the kind of protections it is describing, Goldstein said, then it should have filed for a patent, which is much more difficult to obtain than copyright.

Plus, Goldstein argued, a copyright is not applicable to the functionality of code because it would otherwise be impossible for developers to write or understand additional computer programs that would have the ability to respond to that original code.

Chief Justice John Roberts equated Goldstein’s point to a restaurant menu. “If every restaurant organizes its menu that way,” Roberts said, referring to restaurants putting appetizers first on a menu, then entrees, then desserts. “You don’t want to discourage people from opening it because they’re going to have to spend their own time trying to figure out what the menu should look like.”

Oracle first sued Google for copyright infringement in 2010 after it published the 11,000 lines of Java SE code it copied, along with the rest of its Android platform, for free under an open source license.

Oracle says this resulted in an enormous loss of money to them, as Google is a direct competitor. The District Court for the Northern District of California ruled that the code was not copyrightable in 2012, but on appeal the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed the original ruling and said that much of the code was entitled to copyright.

In 2019, Google’s petition of the lower court’s decision to be reviewed by the Supreme Court was approved.

The question of whether Google could claim “fair use” with regards to the code remained unanswered in the lower court, though Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh asked questions regarding the nature of Google’s use of the code.

Alito asked Goldstein: “What should I do if I think that the purpose and character of the use and the effect on market value here weigh very heavily against you on the fair use issue, that a jury couldn’t reasonably find in your favor on those factors?”

Fair use is intended to promote the freedom of expression by allowing for the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works in highly specific circumstances, such as education, scholarship and research. Google says the use of the computer code is protected by the fair use standard.

The case, critical for the entire software industry, is set to be decided in the spring.

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