The U.S. Supreme Court has denied an appeal from Google in its ongoing legal battle with Oracle over software copyright. The move means that the search giant, which argues that its reliance on Oracle’s software development tools falls under fair use, must go back and try to sway the lower courts. 

The outcome of this 5-year-old tussle may have enormous repercussions across the tech industry. Oracle sees itself as a champion of sorts, fighting to protect intellectual property rights. Google, on the other hand, believes it is defending innovation. If the courts rule that application programming interfaces (APIs) are subject to copyright, the decision could severely restrict the ability of coders to build on or modify the work of others. 

See also: Chilling Effect: Oracle Wins Appeal to Copyright APIs

That’s no small matter. Advances in software often come from app makers adapting or furthering someone else’s code to solve problems or create something new. Whatever final rulings come from this case could shape the very nature of all future software development—and apparently, the Supreme Court wants nothing to do with making this decision. 

With so much hanging in the balance, let’s take a look at how we got here. 

Is It Taking Cues Or Stealing?

The court case tells a similar story to others found in everything from music to novels: Everyone can agree that there’s a fine line between being inspired by something and ripping it off. But the opinions vary on where it should lie. 

In the feud between Oracle and Google, which dates back to August 2010, that line is drawn by Google’s usage of Oracle’s Java APIs as the foundation of Android. (See our API explainer.) Software makers use APIs to hook into applications and platforms, either to tie existing products or services to them or, as in this case, to build their own works on top of them. 

See also: What APIs Are And Why They’re Important

The primary conflict: While Google created its own modified version of Java for its mobile operating system, the company left several of its conventions and code structures in place to help developers build for the platform. Oracle thinks that’s unfair. 

In 2012, Judge William Alsup of the Northern District of California ruled that APIs could not be subject to copyright. That decision was later overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals in May 2014, in a ruling deemed “disastrous” by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Google has the opportunity to present a fair-use defense—but now, that argument will head to the lower courts instead of the Supreme Court. 

Protecting Innovation

The Journal quoted Oracle General Counsel Dorian Daley as saying that the high court’s move “is a win for innovation and for the technology industry that relies on copyright protection to fuel innovation.”

Both sides believe they’re fighting to foster software innovation, whether that’s by protecting the work done by developers (Oracle) or allowing other developers the freedom to reuse the same basic frameworks (Google). 

In 2012, Google said it believes that “open and interoperable computer languages form an essential basis for software development” and now it’s going to have to argue that case all over again. 

If the tech giant loses, its Android platform—which powers everything from phones and tablets to televisions, connected car technologies and smartwatches—could suddenly become prohibitively expensive for developers and partners to adopt. That may prompt the company to switch to one of its own homegrown languages (such as Go or Dart) to avoid that scenario. 

It’s hard to see how that could be a win for developers, and Oracle more or less stands alone in believing that this is a productive path for the software industry. Winning a $1 billion suit, however, would be rather productive for the company itself. 

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

david nield