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DOJ backs Oracle over Google in long-running copyright dispute

Post Time:2020-02-28 Source:siliconangle.com Author:MIKE WHEATLEY Views:

The U.S. Department of Justice is throwing its weight behind Oracle Corp. in the company’s long-running copyright dispute with Google LLC, which is now up before the Supreme Court.

The case, which has dragged on for more than a decade, revolves around the Java programming language. Oracle obtained the rights to the language following its 2010 acquisition of Sun Microsystems Inc. for $7.4 billion. Sun had filed suit against Google a year before it was bought, and Oracle decided to continue the case after the takeover closed with an expanded set of claims.

At issue is the way Google used Java in Android. When the original suit was filed by Sun, the mobile operating system contained 11,500 lines of code from the Java application programming interface. Oracle argues that this copying constituted a copyright violation, while the Alphabet Inc. subsidiary posits it was legal under the fair-use doctrine.

In an amicus brief filing Wednesday, the DOJ urged the Supreme Court to rule in favor of Oracle in the case, saying it believes that Google flouted copyright laws when it copied Oracle’s code.

The DOJ’s decision to back Oracle could have far-reaching consequences since the Supreme Court must rule on just how far copyright laws should stretch in the digital age.

The entire case hinges on the question of whether it’s possible to copyright application programming interfaces, or APIs, which are a piece of computer code that allows software products to communicate with one another.

Google’s argument is that software developers and others rely on open APIs in order to build products that can easily integrate with one another and work together, and that it did nothing wrong when it copied Oracle’s Java API. But Oracle contends that Google exploitatively stole its code when building Android, which has gone on to become the world’s most popular operating system as sales of smartphones exploded.

U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco and Joseph Hunt, the assistant attorney general of the DOJ’s Civil Division, said in a filing that “computer programs are copyrightable” and that Oracle holds a “valid copyright” over the code Google is alleged to have stolen.

“Google’s policy arguments are unpersuasive,” the filing reads. “Petitioner has not identified any industry understanding that software ‘interfaces’ are per se uncopyrightable, and concerns about the interaction of copyright and emerging technology do not justify such an atextual rule.”

The case has split opinions, however, with Google winning the support of several big technology companies, including Microsoft Corp. and IBM Corp., while Oracle has been backed by groups such as the Recording Industry Association of America.

Oracle is fairly unusual among technology firms in that it has gotten quite cozy with U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration at a time when most others have faced a backlash, coming under intense scrutiny over their alleged monopolistic behavior, for example.

As it happens, the Trump administration backing came the same day that Oracle founder and Chief Technology Officer Larry Ellison started a campaign fundraiser for Trump at his Southern California estate.

But the DOJ’s stance on the case under Trump is no different from that of the previous administration’s. In 2015, when Barack Obama was still ensconced in the White House, the DOJ urged the Supreme Court not to hear the case.

It remains unclear which way the case will ultimately go, but there’s a lot at stake for both companies. Oracle is demanding damages of $8.8 billion from Google, a sum that dwarfs the current $1.3 billion record for a copyright infringement case, in which Oracle was also the plaintiff. Moreover, a favorable Supreme Court ruling for the database maker could have financial implications for many uninvolved companies as well.

Borrowing API components from other applications is a fairly common practice in development projects and countless programs feature copied snippets. If the Supreme Court rules that APIs are copyrightable, code that is free to use today could suddenly be subject to license restrictions. Some organizations may find themselves owing fees for applications built years prior, while others could face the risk of being served intellectual property infringement suits.

As such, the outcome of the case is being keenly watched by numerous players in the tech industry, as it will ultimately define the legal status of API architectures, intellectual property and licensing going forward, Constellation Research Inc. analyst Holger Mueller told SiliconANGLE.

“It is to a certain point ironic that the software behind an API can be protected by patents, but here we are now with the debate on the IP of their access, the API signature,” Mueller said. “It’s questionable if an amicus brief from anybody will influence the Supreme Court, so lets just hope the supreme judges can find a good solution going forward on this key question.”