Oracle Backed by 32 Briefs in Java Copyright Fight with Google

A long list of individuals and organizations -- 32 in all -- filed amicus briefs at the U.S. Supreme Court this week in support of Oracle in its upcoming Java copyright showdown with Google. That list includes Hollywood studios, leading record labels, former lawmakers, conservative think tanks and the federal government.

Google has its supporters, too, 26 of whom filed briefs in January.

The latest flurry of amicus curiae (friend-of-the-court) briefs slipped in under the Wednesday deadline to file. The two tech giants are scheduled to make their final arguments before the high court in March.

Oracle's supporters urged the court to reject Google's claim that its use of 37 Java APIs in its Android mobile operating system did not infringe on Oracle's copyrights, and that upholding a lower court's finding that it did would crush innovation in the software industry. That Google copied those APIs, totaling 11,330 lines of code, as well as "the intricate organization and relationships" among them, is not in dispute. Oracle is seeking $8.8 billion in damages.

In its filing, the federal government stated, in part, "The core purpose of copyright law is to create appropriate economic incentives for creative expression, by assuring potential authors that they will reap the benefits of any marketplace success their works ultimately achieve. It therefore would be antithetical to sound copyright policy to treat the popularity of the Java platform among developers as a ground for deeming respondent's declaring code uncopyrightable."

In its brief, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) urged the high court to use this case revise the fair use doctrine, which the organization argued has become too expansive. (The court last addressed it in 1994.) "In the twenty-five years since [the last ruling], fair use jurisprudence has not only been inconsistent and unpredictable," the RIAA wrote, "but most troublingly has provided increasing immunity from infringement claims."

Former Utah Senator Orrin Hatch and several lawmakers who worked on copyright legislation dealing with software in the 1980s also weighed in: "This court should not undermine that legislative judgment -- based on Congress's long tradition of reviewing and expanding copyright to encompass new modes of expression -- by creating the loopholes to copyrightability and fair use that Google requests."

The Songwriters Guild of America took the position that Google's argument poses an existential threat to all owners of creative works: "It is not empty rhetoric to say that without the statutory and constitutional protections of copyright, professional creators could not earn their livings and simply would not produce new works, and the world would be poorer for it. The reason is simple but profound: copyright protection allows for a vibrant creative environment in which artists can predictably recover the gains of their creative labors."

The Supreme Court agreed in November of last year to hear this case, which has been wending its way through the legal system since Oracle sued Google in 2010. Our earlier report includes a summary of the long history of this case.

If Oracle prevails in the high court, the case returns to a federal jury in California, which will calculate the damages. If Google wins, it's finally over. Either decision is likely to establish a precedent for copyrighting code in the U.S. that will affect software makers everywhere.

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].