The most important legal brawl in technology is finally going before the US Supreme Court.
Oracle and Google will face off Wednesday before the Supreme Court, which will decide a landmark patent infringement case that could have far-reaching implications in the way software is developed, integrated and monetized in the tech industry.
The Supreme Court marks a significant moment in what has been a decade-long battle between the two parties. A lot is on the line in a case that has the potential to alter the very nature of software development.
The case centers on Oracle's allegation that Google stole critical elements of its Java technology to develop its Android operating system. Google has hit back, arguing that Oracle cannot own this type of code — known as APIs, or application programming interfaces — which make it possible for software programs to talk to each other. In fact, this type of code is widely used in the industry for integrating pieces of software and web services.
The Supreme Court's ruling, which is expected early next year, could potentially shake up the tech industry, said Rob Siegel, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and a management lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
If Google wins, "the software and tech industry runs as it has for the last three decades," he told Business Insider. On the other hand, a victory for Oracle could trigger a "mad scramble" as tech companies try to figure out the legal ramifications of using another vendor's API, he said.
"Some companies clarify that their APIs are open and that they won't sue others," Siegel said. "Some companies get aggressive and litigate. Those that litigate get ostracized after a while as other companies will try to avoid doing business with them and will avoid integrating their software."
Google counts several of its peers as allies in this fight: Google's position has been endorsed by other tech giants, led by IBM, Microsoft and RedHat, the open source software behemoth which is now owned by Big Blue. Google also has the support of prominent technology advocacy groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Mozilla.
"Computer interfaces are not copyrightable. That simple, yet powerful principle has been a cornerstone of technological and economic growth for over sixty years," IBM said in a legal brief.
Oracle, for its part, has won support from several prominent tech executives, including Scott McNealy, former CEO of Sun Microsystems, the company that invented Java which Oracle acquired in 2010. Perhaps more importantly, Oracle will argue its case before the Supreme Court with the backing of an important player: the Trump administration.
The Trump endorsement
Analyst Rob Enderle of the Enderle Group speculated that politics could play a role in the case. The legal battle is going before the Supreme Court at a time when Oracle founder and chief technology officer Larry Ellison is widely known to enjoy the support of President Donald Trump. This was underscored by Oracle's surprise victory in the TikTok negotiations.
"You also have the political element in the court system now, and the administration likes Oracle and doesn't care much for Google and has been willing to apply pressure on the court to protect friends," Enderle told Business Insider. "Given bending to that pressure would reflect poorly on the court, and the court knows this, it makes the outcome kind of a crapshoot. Given the court's conservative makeup now, Oracle likely has the advantage."
The Justice Department urged the Supreme Court to rule in favor of Oracle, but the court chose to take the case anyway. "Ordinarily the views of the Justice Department carry a lot of weight in the Supreme Court," Tyler Ochoa, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, who specializes in copyright law and signed a brief in favor of Google, told Business Insider.
"So you already have at least four judges that either think the court of appeals was wrong or at least think it's an important issue that they need to resolve."
In a brief endorsing Oracle's case, former Solicitor General Noel Francisco argued that Google's "idiosyncratic approach would seem to allow any copyist to carve out the most popular parts of a pre-existing work, on the ground that familiar content is likely to make the second work more commercially appealing to admirers of the first. That result would be antithetical to the purposes of copyright."
The passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg may also sway things. "She's been strongly pro-copyright in her opinions in recent years, said Professor Ochoa. Ginsberg, Ochoa believes, would have been "almost a certain" vote for Oracle.
A decade-long battle is heading towards a conclusion
Kent Walker, Google's senior vice president for global affairs, maintained this week that the legal battle is affirming the tradition of innovation in the software industry.
"We spoke for software developers, computer scientists, businesses and consumers who support software innovation," he said in a statement. "Developers want to create applications that work across platforms, without fearing that companies will misuse copyright law to block interoperability."
Oracle reaffirmed its view that Google is guilty of theft. "We made clear that Google's conduct (theft) must be judged under the law as it is, not as Google would like it to be," Oracle Executive Vice President Ken Glueck said in a statement. "Google's self-serving approach to intellectual property is undeniably arrogant."
Ultimately, the case's outcome may hinge in no small part on whether the Supreme Court grasp the intricacies involved, and the potential shockwaves through the tech industry.
"Software copyrightability is really tricky," said Professor Ochoa. "It's going to help if the Justices really understand the software. Hopefully they're a little tech savvy."
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