WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to decide whether Google should have to pay Oracle billions of dollars in a long-running copyright infringement lawsuit over software used to run many of the world’s smartphones.
In a brief urging the Supreme Court to hear its appeal, Google called the dispute “the copyright case of the decade.”
Oracle asked for $9 billion in damages over what it said was Google’s wrongful copying of about 11,000 lines of software code in Android, its mobile phone operating system.
In 2016, a San Francisco jury found that Google had not violated copyright laws because it had made “fair use” of the code. But last year a specialized appeals court in Washington, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, disagreed with that assessment and sent the case back for a trial to determine how much Google must pay in damages.
The case, Google v. Oracle America, No. 18-956, concerns Google’s reliance on aspects of Java, an open-source software language, in the Android operating system. Oracle, which acquired Java in 2010 when it bought Sun Microsystems, said that using parts of it without permission amounted to copyright infringement.
Google responded that free access to the software interfaces in question were crucial to the innovation economy. “Without interfaces,” Google lawyers wrote in a Supreme Court brief, “your contact list cannot access your email program, which cannot send a message using the operating system, which cannot access your phone in the first place. Each is an island.”
In its own brief, Oracle said that robust copyright protections made innovation possible.
“Google’s theory is that, having invested all those resources to create a program popular with platform developers and app programmers alike, Oracle should be required to let a competitor copy its code so that it can co-opt the fan base to create its own best-selling sequel,” Oracle’s lawyers wrote. “The next Oracle will think twice about investing as heavily in a venture like Java if it knows that any competitor could freely copy its work to compete directly against it.”
The Trump administration had urged the justices to side with Oracle and deny review. Conceding that the appeals court’s ruling on fair use was “not free from doubt,” the administration said that on balance the Federal Circuit had gotten it right.
Google “copied 11,500 lines of computer code verbatim, as well as the complex structure and organization inherent in that code, in order to help its competing commercial product,” Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco wrote, adding that Google’s “unauthorized copying harmed the market for respondent’s Java platform.”