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Tech Orgs Urge SCOTUS to Reverse Google v. Oracle on Java Copyright

A number of small companies and tech organizations joined the Mozilla software community in a friend of the court brief, filed this week, urging the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) to reverse a federal circuit court's decision that Google infringed on Oracle's copyrights to Java code in its Android mobile operating system.

The list of organizations on the Mozilla amici curiae includes Medium, Cloudera, Creative Commons, Shopify, Etsy, Reddit, the Open Source Initiative, Mapbox, Patreon, the Wikimedia Foundation, and the Software Freedom Conservancy. 

"Competition and innovation are at the heart of a healthy internet and the field of software development that fuels it," the brief states. "For decades, software engineers have relied heavily on reimplementation, including reuse of functional protocols such as the software interfaces in this case, to create competing alternatives to incumbent industry players and develop new markets without fear of copyright infringement…."

The federal court's ruling against Google "upended decades of industry practice and the well-established expectations of developers, investors, and consumers," the brief states. the brief urges the Court to reverse the lower court's finding that the structure, sequence, and organization ("SSO") of Oracle's Java API package was copyrightable, and also that Google's use of that SSO was not a "fair use" under copyright law.

The brief makes its argument from the perspective of small, medium, and open-source tech organizations, said Abigail Phillips, head of the Mozilla Foundation's legal department, in a blog post. "Mozilla believes that software reimplementation [the process of writing new software to perform certain functions of a legacy product] and the interoperability it facilitates are fundamental to the competition and innovation at the core of a flourishing software development ecosystem."

The federal court's ruling would upend the tradition of reimplementation "not only by prohibiting it in the API context of this case," Phillips wrote, "but by calling into question enshrined tenets of the software industry that developers have long relied on to innovate without fear of liability."

The consequences of a ruling against Google are especially dire for small software developers, she wrote, who are already disadvantaged in the industry by their size and relatively limited resources. The result would be fewer innovations from small companies and a reinforcement of the positions of the tech industry's largest enterprises, as well as a "decline in incentive" among the big companies to improve their products.

"We believe that a healthy internet depends on the Supreme Court reversing the Federal Circuit and reaffirming the current state of play for software development, in which copyright does not stand in the way of software developers reusing SSOs for API packages in socially, technologically, and economically beneficial ways," the brief states.

In November, SCOTUS agreed to decide whether Google should have to pay Oracle billions of dollars for infringing on its copyright of 37 Java APIs Google used in its Android operating system. (Our earlier report includes a summary of the long history of this case, which started when Oracle sued Google in 2010.)

Google, which is a subsidiary of Alphabet, Inc., filed a writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court last year, asking for a review of the earlier judgment of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in this case. Google described the dispute as "the copyright case of the decade."

"Above and beyond the broader implications for copyright law, this case warrants the Court's attention for its sheer practical importance," the petition reads in part. The ruling "…threatens the prevailing approach to building computer software…"

The court granted the certiorari. Google filed its opening brief last week.

Oracle is seeking $8.8 million in damages from Google for what it sees as the "epitome of copyright infringement," which has done "incalculable market harm."

Kent Walker, Google's SVP of Global Affairs and Chief Legal Officer, wrote a blog post, stating his company's position. And the Business Insider has reported that IBM will be supporting Google with its own brief this week.

Posted by John K. Waters on January 14, 2020