The Supreme Court justices appeared highly aware Wednesday that their decision in a copyright dispute between Google and Oracle could have far-reaching consequences for Silicon Valley, but after an hour and a half of arguments it was not clear which company’s dire warning they most seemed to believe.
Each of the court’s eight justices grilled attorneys representing Google and Oracle, as well as the U.S. deputy solicitor general, in a case that could upend the tech industry’s understanding of who owns small but essential chunks of code that allow different programs and platforms to connect.
Questions for Google: The justices lobbed some of their toughest questions at Google’s attorney, Tom Goldstein, scrutinizing his argument that Google copied code from Oracle because it had no other option. Google has asserted that the code is necessary for developers to create applications for its Android operating system and that these application programming interfaces, or APIs, are widely used without a license.
“Cracking the safe may be the only way to get the money that you want but that doesn’t mean you can do it,” Chief Justice John Roberts said.
Roberts added that when the code in question was first created by Sun Microsystems and later acquired by Oracle, there was more than one way to write it. He and several other justices surmised Google copied Oracle’s code because it was already popular with developers and more expedient than writings it own.
Justice Neil Gorsuch said, “The argument strikes me very much as, ‘I wish to share the facilities of a more successful rival because they’ve come up with a particularly elegant, or efficient, or successful highly adopted solution in the marketplace,’ and ride on their innovation.”
Questions for Oracle: Oracle’s attorney, Joshua Rosenkranz, pushed the idea that declaring it legal to copy code without first obtaining a license would eliminate the financial incentive for companies to invest in writing new application programming interfaces. APIs are the fundamental tools in an operating system that developers use to build software programs and to help different applications interact.
But Justice Sonia Sotomayor said application programming interfaces have previously been deemed outside the scope of copyright protections and for the Supreme Court to rule otherwise could shake the software industry — an argument Google has repeatedly made.
Based on that unwritten rule, developers “know they can copy only what [code is] necessary to run on the application but they have to change everything else,” Sotomayor said. “That’s what Google did here. That’s why it took less than 1 percent of the Java code.”
Several justices also raised questions about whether a lower court applied the proper legal standard when reviewing cases involving questions of fair use. If they determine it did not, it’s possible the case could be returned to a lower court for another look.
Background: The teleconference hearing before the nation’s highest court caps off a decade of legal wrangling between the rivals. A federal circuit court ruled in Oracle’s favor and Google successfully petitioned the Supreme Court to take up the case.
What’s next: The justices are expected to reach a decision next year.