Google Asks U.S. Supreme Court To Decide Oracle Copyright Suit Involving Java/Android

The four-year-old legal battle between Google and Oracle over Google's use of Java in its Android operating system could end up being decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, if Google has its way. The search engine giant has asked the high court to hear the case, arguing that an appeals court ruling issued this spring should be overturned in the interest of protecting innovation in high tech.

In May, the U.S. Federal Circuit Court of Appeals held that the 37 Java APIs at the center of the patent infringement lawsuit are protected under U.S. copyright law. The appeals court overturned the 2012 ruling of Judge William Alsup of the U.S. District Court of Northern California.

In its petition filed on October 6, Google maintains that extending copyright to computer interfaces would stifle innovation, that it would "obstruct an enormous amount of innovation in fast-moving, high-technology industries, in part because innovation depends on software developers' ability to build on what has come before."

"If the Federal Circuit's holding had been the law at the inception of the Internet age," the petition argues, "early computer companies could have blocked vast amounts of technological development by claiming 95-year copyright monopolies over the basic building blocks of computer design and programming. By the time Google and countless other innovators even came onto the scene, others could have locked up the field for longer than most people will live."

Google's petition cites a 1995 Supreme Court case, Lotus Development Corp. v. Borland International, Inc., in which a divided high court let stand a First Circuit decision that the menu hierarchy in the spreadsheet program Quattro Pro amounted to an uncopyrightable "method of operation."

What the appeals court found in the Oracle v. Google case was that the declaration code in Oracle's API packages, which Google copied verbatim, was copyrightable. John T. Kennedy, an attorney at Dorsey & Whitney specializing in patent litigation, prosecution, and licensing, told ADTmag in an earlier interview that the Oracle code had not 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, as the court put it, "the author had multiple ways to express the underlying idea" at the time of creation of the code."

"Whether an alleged copier has multiple ways to perform a function was also found to be not relevant to the copyrightability of such code," Kennedy said, "but, might arise as a fair use defense. In a nutshell, since the functions performed by the Oracle APIs at the time of their creation could have been achieved by code 'written and organized in any number of ways' Oracle's code is copyrightable."

When asked for comment via e-mail, both Oracle and Google declined.

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].