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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”