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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Comments (10)

10 responses to “Supreme Court to Hear Google’s Java Appeal”

  1. Thom77

    Someone will have to keep Ginsburg awake for this one.

  2. JerryH

    Hard to believe that this travesty is still going on. A victory for Oracle here is really bad for, well, everyone except Oracle. In the long run it might even be bad for Oracle as people start suing them for similar API re-use.

    • jwpear

      In reply to JerryH:

      Google has already won. They managed to drag this out long enough time to introduce a replacement for Java. I don't see how Java developers win either way. Google has managed to undermine the value of Java. If Oracle wins, or had won earlier, I'm not convinced the value will/would be any better in the long run. Can we really trust either of these companies?

      • eric_rasmussen

        In reply to jwpear:

        If Oracle wins, nobody can make anything that is API-compatible with anything else. That would be a disaster for American software companies since we have to compete with global companies that will have no such restrictions in place. It will be nothing less than the gutting of the American technical workforce; why operate in a country where you have to license everything you work with when you could build it in China, India, or Europe for a fraction of the price and none of the legal risk.

  3. hrlngrv

    Picky: amici curiae is friends of the court; singular would be amicus curiae.

  4. MikeGalos

    Despite Google's effectively winning by stalling this out until, even with the monetary damage, there's no real cost to them for their theft, an actual win for them in this case would have a massive chilling effect on not just software but most intellectual property.

    • Pungkuss

      Why is it that every software person I talk to think Oracle is the villain here, not Google. What Google did was make their API calls the same as the API calls in Java. This make the language easier to adapt. None of the actual stuff in the APIs are the same, just the calls to them. This is why Sun gave Google their blessings. Oracle buys Java and is now using it as a weapon. Screw them.
      In reply to MikeGalos:


    • christian.hvid

      In reply to MikeGalos:

      As [former Sun CEO] Jonathan Schwartz has testified in court, Sun never considered the Java APIs to be proprietary or protected by copyright. However, Oracle knew that the legal waters were murky and that there could be a substantial payday down the line if they played their cards right. And as [Java creator] James Gosling wrote: "...[when] we were being grilled about the patent situation between Sun and Google, we could see the Oracle lawyer's eyes sparkle." Suing Google over anything Java related was part of Oracle's plan for Sun long before the acquisition was finalized.


      That said, it's striking how the world has changed over the close-to-a-decade that this lawsuit has made its way through the courts. Today, developers simply won't touch code that is encumbered by patents or proprietary copyright licenses. Even the GPL - the brainchild of software freedom crusader Richard Stallman - is considered to be too restrictive. If the Google/Oracle fight has contributed to this sea change, then we should all be thankful for it.

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