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Supreme Court to Have Final Say in Oracle v. Google Java API Battle

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Following our reporting from 2018 that Oracle was seeking $8.8 billion in damages from Google, the Supreme Court of the United States has decided to hear Google’s petition appealing that its use of open-source Java Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to build the Android platform violated Oracle’s copyrights.

The court battle between the two tech giants has been ongoing since 2010. Oracle’s main claim is that Google (i.e. the petitioner) directly copied 11,500 lines of copyrighted code and used it in the Android operating system.

Petitioner copied 11,500 lines of respondent’s copyrighted code. In doing so, petitioner also copied the complex architecture of the 37 packages at issue, including the names and specifications of the thousands of methods and classes in those packages and their hierarchical and interdependent relationships to each other.

Google holds fast that APIs are not copyrightable and the reuse of software interfaces is necessary to make systems interoperable.

The issue is whether copyright law prohibits reimplementing—i.e., reusing—the software interfaces that are necessary to connect dozens of platforms to millions of applications on billions of devices. Without interfaces, your contact list cannot access your email program, which cannot send a message using the operating system, which cannot access your phone in the first place. Each is an island. Countless other examples abound. The information age depends on the reuse of interfaces.

In 2018, an appeals court ruled in favor of Oracle and overturned previous rulings that favored Google. Dissatisfied with the lower court’s decision, Google petitioned the Supreme Court to hear its case. Previously, the Supreme Court had refused to hear Google’s petition but finally granted it on November 15th, 2019. Given that Google filed the petition, the case is now dubbed "Google v. Oracle" instead of "Oracle v. Google". On the same day the petition was granted, a tweet from Joshua Bloch, a former Java architect at Google, indicated his excitement about the decision.

Google will have just 30 minutes to present its case; Oracle will have 30 minutes to respond. On December 5th, Google requested more time to prepare its argument for the case. Google's request was granted on December 10th. The two tech giants have agreed to the following filing schedule:

  • January 6, 2020 – Google will submit its brief (i.e. argument why they should prevail).
  • February 12, 2020 - Oracle will submit its response brief.
  • March 13, 2020 - Google will file a reply to Oracle’s brief addressing any opposing points raised.

If this schedule holds, the Supreme Court will hear the case in March 2020 and have the final say on if Google will pay Oracle billions of dollars. If Google wins, the case is finally put to rest; however, if Oracle wins, a federal jury in California will calculate the damages due to them by Google. Oracle’s potential damages in the case have been estimated to be between $8 billion and $9 billion.

A Supreme Court decision on copyrightability in regards to software could ultimately change how companies approach software development given the prolific use of APIs to make systems interoperable. Per Google, an Oracle win could:

upend the longstanding expectation of software developers that they are free to use existing software interfaces to build new computer programs

InfoQ will keep a close eye on the outcome of this case. Readers can also keep up-to-date with all Java-related news by visiting the InfoQ Java homepage.

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Community comments

  • API vs Implementation

    by Sohil Shah /

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    This is a simple Gang of Four review for the Judge.

    API = The chassis to a car engine. Almost all look the same. Who cares about the chassis at that point

    Implementation = Car Engine. The Real Deal that makes a Car a Car

    Copyright knowledge is very important here. It can trip people up especially Open Source Developers just starting out.

    The dude that types the code in, owns the copyright. No questions asked. Of course their employer gets it all via an Employment Agreement.

    So this time, lets say, Copyright == James Gosling -> Sun Microsystems -> Oracle

    Oracle owns the copyright. No questions asked.

    Google -> Java (good choice from an API standpoint only) - Android VM (beautiful).

    But why pull in 11,000 lines of code. Does not matter how complex. You are Google. Write it re-write it, break internal compatibility, refactor...You know the process.

    It is very disappointing to realize Google is getting complacent.

    Sundar Pichai, was lucky to get the gig at Google. He has already made them complacent. With Larry Page and Sergey Brin stepping down, with Pichai at the front lines, Google will most likely become a dinosaur like Oracle.

    Who cares who wins at this point !

    - Sohil

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