Supreme Court to Hear Google’s Java Appeal

Posted on November 16, 2019 by Paul Thurrott in Android, Dev, Google with 10 Comments

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear Google’s appeal in the Oracle court case concerning its use of Java.

“The motion of 78 Computer Scientists for leave to file a brief as amici curiae [friend of the court] is granted,” the U.S. Supreme Court announced Friday, referring to the case Google LLC v. Oracle America LLC. “The petition for a writ of certiorari [judicial review of a lower court ruling] is granted.”

Google v. Oracle, as I’ll call it, dates back to Oracle’s 2009 acquisition of Sun Microsystems, the owner of the Java programming environment, which Google had used to create Android. Oracle paid $7.4 billion for Sun for two reasons: To acquire the firm’s hardware business and Java, which Oracle CEO Larry Ellison at the time described as “the single most important software asset [Oracle] have ever acquired.”

Ellison proved that point when his company sued Google the following year, alleging that the Android maker had violated the Java copyright and associated patents by using it as the basis for Android by copying its source code and licensing the technology. The resulting blockbuster set of court cases revealed that Google had, in fact, copied over 11,000 lines of Java code verbatim, though Google argued that its use of the code constituted fair use because the APIs were freely available.

But the case is most notable, perhaps, for the back and forth nature of the various rulings. Google won the first trial in 2012, with a district court jury deciding that Google had not infringed on Java’s patents or copyrights. The copyright part of that ruling was reversed by an appeals court in 2014, but it remanded the fair use issue back to the district court. But a second jury trial in 2016 ruled in favor of Google again.

Oracle appealed again, and an appeals court found in 2018 that Google’s use of the Java APIs did not constitute fair use and, worse for Google, that its use of these APIs actually diminished the value of the Java copyright as well. Oracle says that it is entitled to damages of at least $8.8 billion as a result, and the lower district court is set to award damages in a coming trial. But with the Supreme Court now agreeing to hear Google’s case, any damages hearings are now on hold.

“We are confident the Supreme Court will preserve long-established copyright protections for original software and reject Google’s continuing efforts to avoid responsibility for copying Oracle’s innovations,” an Oracle statement notes. “In the end, a finding that Google infringed Oracle’s original works will promote, not stifle, future innovation.”

“What Oracle is seeking here is nothing less than complete control over a community of developers that have invested in learning the free and open Java language,” a Google statement retorts.

In the wake of its legal issues with Oracle, Google has been moving away from the Java language in Android, and the firm now supports an open-source alternative called Kotlin as the primary language for Android app developers. Kotlin is a drop-in replacement for Java in that it operates in the same JVM (Java Virtual Machine, the Java runtime environment) as does Java, ensuring compatibility. Kotlin can also integrate with Java, making it ideal for developers who want to update existing Java codebases with new code.

Google’s chances of success with the Supreme Court seem remote, as the court had previously rejected a 2014 Google petition to hear the case. And the timing is unclear, since the court has until next July to make its decision.

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