The U.S. Supreme Court let Oracle Corp. press accusations that Google Inc. developed the Android smartphone operating system by improperly copying Java programming language.
The copyright case has split the industry between companies that write interface code and those that rely on it to develop software programs. A lower court had ruled in favor of Oracle as the creator of the code. Google then appealed, saying the decision would block innovation in programming. The justices rejected Google’s appeal.
The case now returns to a trial court where Oracle, the largest database-software maker, has sought more than $1 billion in damages. Oracle claims Google used its Java code without paying because it was in a rush to create Android, now the world’s most popular smartphone platform.
A federal appeals court in Washington said the shortcuts created by Java to perform basic functions like connecting to the Internet are eligible for copyright protection.
The high court’s action “is a win for innovation and for the technology industry that relies on copyright protection to fuel innovation,” Oracle General Counsel Dorian Daley said in a statement.
The Federal Circuit, as the appeals court is known, reinstated a jury’s 2012 finding that Google infringed the copyrights and sent the case back to the district court level to let Google argue it had fair use of the technology.
“We will continue to defend the interoperability that has fostered innovation and competition in the software industry,” said Aaron Stein, a Google spokesman.
At the Supreme Court, Google contended the Federal Circuit’s reasoning would block innovation by preventing software developers from building on earlier innovations.
“If the Federal Circuit’s holding had been the law at the inception of the Internet age, early computer companies could have blocked vast amounts of technological development by claiming 95-year copyright monopolies over the basic building blocks of computer design and programming,” the company argued.
Google’s chances at Supreme Court review took a hit in May when the Obama administration urged against a hearing, saying the lower court ruling was correct.
Google’s allies at the Supreme Court included Yahoo! Inc., Red Hat Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. Mozilla Corp., which makes the Firefox Web browser, said in a filing with the court that the reuse of the interfaces is key to creating new programs based on open source, where the underlying code is available to anyone. It likened Oracle’s actions to a single company trying to control how appliances plug into electrical outlets.
Oracle asked the Supreme Court not to hear the appeal, saying its code is “original and highly creative.”
“Google was free to write its own code to perform the same functions as Oracle’s,” the company argued. “Instead, it plagiarized.”
Oracle had support from Microsoft Corp., NetApp Inc. and EMC Corp. at the appeals court level.
The dispute centers on application programming interfaces, or APIs, code that lets programmers take advantage of functions already built into an operating system. By using Oracle’s APIs, developers don’t have to create a new formula for those features, saving time and money.
The case is Google v. Oracle, 14-140. The trial court case is Oracle America Inc. v. Google Inc., 10cv3561, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California (San Francisco).