7 January 2020CopyrightRory O'Neill

Oracle ruling harms innovation, Google tells SCOTUS

Google has urged the US Supreme Court to reverse a landmark ruling, which held that key elements of the Android mobile operating system breach the copyright for the Java programming code.

In a submission to the Supreme Court filed yesterday, January 6, Google argued that the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit’s March 2018 judgment in favour of Java owner Oracle threatened software innovation.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear Google’s case last November. The decade-long dispute concerns whether application software interfaces (APIs), which allow third-party developers’ apps to function on Android, are protected by copyright.

Google’s Android mobile operating system uses Java programming code to allow third-party developers’ apps to work.

This was essential, Google argues, to avoid the pitfalls of early smartphone operating systems that did not have access to a wide range of publicly available third-party apps.

“The net effect of Oracle’s novel approach would be to empower Oracle (and other software companies) to prevent anyone from developing a product compatible with their software interfaces,” Google argued in the latest court filing.

Specifically, Google says that its use of a small portion of Java script constitutes fair use under the US Copyright Act’s ‘merger’ doctrine.

According to Google, Oracle is attempting to claim copyright protection over the function of the Java code itself, “as opposed to the author’s expression”.

The portions of Java code used by Google were minimal as necessary to allow third-party Java-based apps to function properly on the Android system, Google argued.

The “phrases” of Java code involved were too minimal to be protectable under copyright, the company said.

Innovation under threat?

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, writing in support of Google last February, said the Federal Circuit’s ruling in favour of Oracle was a “disaster for innovation in computer software”.

Conversely, the US government has lined up behind Oracle, and urged the Supreme Court not to review the case at all.

In its own filing to the court, US solicitor general Noel Francisco argued on behalf of the government that Google’s approach was “antithetical to the purposes of copyright”.

“The fair-use doctrine does not permit copying valuable parts of a work to attract fans to a competing commercial product,” Francisco wrote.

The case has effectively pitted Oracle and the US government against some of the biggest software developers in the US, with Google also attracting the backing of companies like Microsoft.

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14 April 2020   The US Supreme Court is set to hear a series of oral arguments by telephone conference next month, including a dispute over ‘generic’ domains.
21 August 2020   A federal appeals court has partially cancelled a copyright win for Hewlett Packard Enterprises over US software developer Oracle.
8 October 2020   Google is facing an uphill battle in its software copyright dispute against Oracle at the US Supreme Court, lawyers have told WIPR.