Oracle tells the Supreme Court: "Google has a problem"

Oracle delivered its latest argument to the Supreme Court ahead of its showdown with Google over the internet giant's use of Java APIs to build Android.
Written by Stephanie Condon, Senior Writer

Oracle on Wednesday delivered fresh arguments to the Supreme Court in its ongoing dispute with Google over the internet giant's use of Java APIs to build Android. The high court will finally consider the case on March 24 and deliver a verdict later this year, putting to rest a decade-long legal battle that put billions of dollars on the line, as well as the rules of software development. 

"Google has a problem," Oracle argues in its brief. "It committed an egregious act of plagiarism and now needs to rewrite copyright law to justify it. It cannot." 

Oracle first took Google to court in 2010, claiming that Google owed it upwards of $9 billion for using Java API packages without paying copyright licensing fees. Oracle argued Google had infringed Oracle's copyright by copying into Android the "structure, sequence and organization" of 37 Java APIs. 

In its latest brief, Oracle contends that Google wanted its own software platform so that it could jump into the nascent mobile business -- "But with a looming existential crisis, there was no time to innovate." Rather than talking about APIs, Oracle stresses that Google "copied 11,330 lines of computer code from Java SE, as well as the intricate organization and relationships among the lines of code."

While Google and others have argued that APIs shouldn't be subject to copyright protection, a U.S. Court of Appeals in 2014 ruled that copyright law did indeed apply to the Java APIs. Then in 2016, Google successfully convinced a jury in federal court that, even if copyright laws were applicable, its use of the APIs amounted to "fair use." However, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed that ruling two years later. 

After losing at the court of appeals in 2018, Google is finally bringing its case all the way to the Supreme Court. Earlier this year, Google submitted its brief to the high court, arguing that a win for Oracle would "stymie the creation of new implementations and applications." 

Oracle's latest brief explains why Oracle believes APIs are indeed subject to copyright protection -- the Copyright Act covers "computer programs," and it doesn't make exceptions for APIs or any other specific kinds of code.  

"Unauthorized copying into a competing product at this scale is clear-cut copyright infringement," the brief says. "If Google had taken 11,330 topic sentences from an encyclopedia or the entire structure of a treatise to compete with the original, Google could not credibly argue that what it took was devoid of copyright protection or fair to copy. Software is no different."

Next, Oracle takes on Google's claim to "fair use." The brief says, "Copying for a commercial and nontransformative purpose strongly weighs against fair use. Android generated over $42 billion. Google used Oracle's code or its original purpose without changing its expression, meaning, or message. That makes Google's use nontransformative."

Google and its allies in this case contend that a ruling in Oracle's favor could have significant damage on the tech industry, creating a "chilling effect" among developers that want to leverage APIs. 

Oracle's brief delivers a rebuttal, pointing out that the software industry has flourished in the six years since the Court of Appeals' copyrightability decision.

"Google protests that the decisions below defied 'settled expectations' and threaten the software industry," the brief says. "But the U.S. software sector has risen to dominance because of copyright protection, not piracy. The real 'settled expectation' is the Copyright Act's constitutionally inspired imperative to reward authors' 'individual effort by personal gain.'" 

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