Google, Oracle meet in copyright clash at Supreme Court

WASHINGTON (AP) — Tech giants Google and Oracle are clashing at the Supreme Court in a copyright dispute that’s worth billions and important to the future of software development.

The case before the justices yesterday has to do with Google’s creation of the Android operating system now used on the vast majority of smartphones worldwide. Google said that to create Android, which was released in 2007, it wrote millions of lines of new computer code. But it also used 11,330 lines of code and an organisation that’s part of Oracle’s Java platform.

Google has defended its actions, saying what it did is long-settled, common practice in the industry, a practice that has been good for technical progress. But Oracle said Google “committed an egregious act of plagiarism” and sued, seeking more than USD8 billion.

The case has been going on for a decade. Google won the first round when a trial court rejected Oracle’s copyright claim, but that ruling was overturned on appeal. A jury then sided with Google, calling its copying “fair use”, but an appeals court disagreed.

Because of the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, only eight justices are hearing the case, and they’re doing so by phone because of the coronavirus pandemic. The questions for the court are whether the 1976 Copyright Act protects what Google copied, and, even if it does, whether what Google did is still permitted.

Oracle, for its part, said the case is simple.

“This case is about theft,” Oracle’s Chief Washington lobbyist Ken Glueck, said in a telephone interview ahead of argument. He compared what Google did to plagiarising from someone else’s speech. When you plagiarise one line from a speech, he said, “That’s a plagiarised speech. Nobody says, ‘Oh, well, it was just one line’.”

But Google’s Chief Legal Officer Kent Walker, said in an interview that Google wrote “every line of code we possibly could ourselves”. “No one’s ever claimed copyright over software interfaces, but that’s what Oracle is claiming now,” Walker said.

Microsoft, IBM and major Internet and tech industry lobbying groups have weighed in — in favour of Google.

The Supreme Court in Washington. PHOTO: AP