Supreme Court Asks for Feds' Input on Oracle v. Google Java Copyright Case

The Supreme Court wants the U.S. government to weigh in on the closely watched Google v. Oracle copyright infringement lawsuit the high court has been asked to review.

In a memo (PDF) issued on Monday, the court invited the U.S. Solicitor General to submit a brief in the case "expressing the views of the United States," a common practice when the case in question has far-reaching implications. The court is not expected to take further action on this case until U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli files court papers articulating the views of President Barack Obama's administration.

Oracle sued Google in 2010, claiming that, in developing its Android mobile operating system, the Internet search giant infringed on patents associated with the Java Platform, which Oracle acquired when it bought Sun Microsystems. In 2012 a 10-person jury serving in the Federal District Court in San Francisco ruled unanimously that Google had not infringed on Oracle's patents. Later that year, the presiding judge, U.S. District Judge William Alsup, also ruled that the 37 Java APIs at the center of the lawsuit were not subject to copyright. In May 2014, a federal appeals court overturned that ruling, declaring that the Java APIs were protected under U.S. copyright law. In October 2014 Google filed a petition with the Supreme Court, asking it to review and reverse the appeals court's decision

The big-picture issue in this years-long back-and-forth is, in the words of Google's October 6, 2014 petition (PDF) to the high court, "whether copyright protection extends to all elements of an original work of computer software, including a system or method of operation, that an author could have written in more than one way."

What the appeals court found was that the declaration code in Oracle's API packages, which Google copied verbatim, was copyrightable. Google developed the implementation code independently, so it wasn't at issue. John T. Kennedy, an attorney at Dorsey & Whitney specializing in patent litigation, prosecution, and licensing, explained in an e-mail at the time that the court found the Oracle code had not been merged with the functions performed by the code; that combinations of short code phrases, such as those used in the APIs, can be copyrightable; and the fact that the code serves a function does not preclude its copyrightability if, the as the court put it, "the author had multiple ways to express the underlying idea" at the time of creation of the code.

The court's decision to ask for input from the Feds underscores the potentially far-reaching impact of their decision, should they decide to hear the case. Java developers in particular will feel that impact, Redmonk analyst Stephen O'Grady told ADTmag when the appeal was filed. The court's decision could have a "chilling effect on the Java community and its developers," he said. "Android has been a boon to the [Java] language," he added, "bringing it relevance in the exploding mobile development ecosystem. Any binding decision, therefore, that might impact its viability over the longer term raises questions for developers currently focused on building mobile Java applications for Android."

About the Author

John K. Waters is the editor in chief of a number of sites, with a focus on high-end development, AI and future tech. He's been writing about cutting-edge technologies and culture of Silicon Valley for more than two decades, and he's written more than a dozen books. He also co-scripted the documentary film Silicon Valley: A 100 Year Renaissance, which aired on PBS.  He can be reached at [email protected].