Breaking Down The $9 Billion Battle Between Google and Oracle

After a decade-long dispute, the Supreme Court finally ruled in April of 2021 in favor of Google after a lengthy, and expensive, debacle with Oracle. The decision is set to have long-lasting implications for the entire software industry. Google has been involved in several major lawsuits, but this one with Oracle initially alleged that Google had infringed on its copyright by stealing certain elements of its code from Java, which is an Oracle offshoot, to build its Android operating system. They also claimed a loss of $9 billion in damages for the breach of intellectual property. The two companies have been battling it out for over 10 years, taking the case to the highest court.

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Ultimately, the Supreme Court rejected a lower courts ruling with a 6-to-2 outcome, claiming that the certain pieces of code used for Google’s application programming interfaces, or API, were considered fair use. Google cited the victory as a huge step in future innovations for consumers, developers, and computer science programmers down the line. But Oracle responded with a much more ominous statement, claiming “the Google platform just got bigger and market power greater. The barriers to entry higher and the ability to compete lower.” By breaking down the lawsuit, and the $9 billion in losses, more information can be derived on where the software industry is headed.

Application Programming Interfaces

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API’s are integral blocks of code that allow for different software applications to communicate with one another and exchange information. Their use is common among developers and with an Oracle win, many future lawsuits would’ve surely ensued to extract payment for use of their own API’s. The court’s decision minimized a variety of damage that were expected to unfold.

While Google had written nearly 15 million lines of code for their Android platform, only 11,330 lines of code from Java were under scrutiny of having been stolen from Oracle. This resulted in less than 0.4% of the relevant code. The dissenting opinion over the lines of code came from Justice Clarence Thomas, who stated that the code had only been copied after Google had failed to reach an agreement with Oracle about licensing the code.

Oracle’s Initial Attempts at Securing Codes

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Oracle is known for purchasing companies and had initially acquired Java in 2010 through the purchase of Sun Microsystems. Java had been traditionally used as a baseline code to develop websites during the dot-com boom. While originally developed by Sun engineers, individual programmers and developers argued that because Java was governed by open-source license, Google, as well as other developers, didn’t need to pay Sun. With Oracle’s purchase came the intent on securing certain sections of code. Oracle almost immediately filed their lawsuit against Google after the purchase. The original court sided with Google, claiming a similar fair use clause. The case was then pushed to a federal jury in San Francisco in 2016 where, again, the court ruled in favor of Google. It wasn’t until a specialized federal court of appeals in Washington in 2018 disagreed with the statement, claiming Oracle had the rights to the Java code and Google would have to pay for any claimed damages. When the case was then sent to trial to determine the amount in damages Google would owe, they asked the Supreme Court to step in.

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The Supreme Court had initially agreed to answer two questions regarding the lawsuit. The first was whether the 11,330 lines of code were copyrightable, and if they were, whether Google’s use of them were subject to fair use. While Google came out ahead in the verdict, only the second question was answered. There was no overwhelming conclusion on the first question if whether or not the certain lines of code could be subject to copyright. This open-ended response opened the doorway for future lawsuits and cases with a more direct approach that can challenge the copyright of other codes down the line.

Justice Breyer attempted an analogy to explain the fair use situation resulting in Google’s favorable outcome. “Imagine that you can, via certain keystrokes, instruct a robot to move to a particular file cabinet, to open a certain drawer, and to pick out a specific recipe,” Breyer wrote. “With the proper recipe in hand, the robot then moves to your kitchen and gives it to a cook to prepare the dish.” He later explained that Google’s use of the code created something new and uniquely different from Oracle’s initial intent with the code. He claimed that the new use of the code “seeks to expand the use and usefulness of Android-based smartphones,” offering “programmers a highly creative and innovative tool for a smartphone environment”.

Oracle’s Take on the Debacle

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It is not just the Supreme Court judges who have taken to metaphor to explain the decade-long debacle. Oracle also provided an analysis for how they viewed the situation with Google. They chose to compare the situation to the popular Harry Potter series of books, claiming that all Google had done was take key parts of those books, like chapter titles, character names, and the first sentence of each paragraph, and wrote a new book, selling it for a greater profit. But Robert Cheetham, the founder and CEO behind Azavea, a software company in Philadelphia, disputed the analogy. Instead, he stated, “The more apt analogy would be the structure of the book itself” citing elements like the spine and numbered pages.”It’s the mechanism for accessing and using that book that is the interface for not just Harry Potter, but all books.”

The opinion on a Google-positive outcome became that it will be more expensive and trying for small companies to compete, while the Oracle-positive outcome stated if copyright is not protected, innovation will suffer. And while the Google-based win from the Supreme Court showed a positive outlook for new companies to copy then utilize unique codes, borrowing from their predecessors, there was still no final verdict on whether or not the codes themselves are copyrightable, opening the floodgates for future lawsuits to come.

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Sources: Forbes, CNN, Fortune, CBSNews, NPR, NYTimes, USCourts.gov, NationalLawReview, Yahoo, PBS, Bloomberg, TheVerge, LATimes

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