The Supreme Court has agreed to review one of the decade's most important software copyright decisions: Last year's ruling from a court of appeals for that Google violated Oracle's copyright when Google created an independent implementation of the Java programming language.
Revenue is high for both Google and the major software industry. Until recently, it was widely believed that copyright law did not control the use of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) – standard feature calls that allow third parties to build software compatible with an established platform such as Java.
But the legal basis for this assumption was always a bit shaky. And in 2014, the Federal Circuit Appeal Court blasted it with a ruling that software APIs may actually be copyrighted. A few years later, the same court ruled that Google's use of Java APIs was not protected by copyright doctrine of fair use.
"The Federal Circuit's decision threatens the continued vitality of software innovation," copyright researcher James Grimmelmann told previous years. He pointed out that allowing copyright protection for APIs can give a new generation of copyright trolls that acquire the rights to old software and then sue people who build newer software on top of what they thought were open standards. It can also force companies to create software that is deliberately incompatible with competitors' products just to avoid being hit by a lawsuit.
Why the case counts
The Supreme Court agrees to review only a small fraction of court decisions. As it often does for cases involving important political issues, the Supreme Court asked the Trump administration to emphasize whether the case deserved Supreme Court attention. The government said no, arguing that the Federal Circuit Appeal Court had reached the correct result when it believed that software could be copyrighted.
But others disagreed. A number of legal researchers, community interests and software companies weighed in on the case, and many argued that the Federal Circuit's ruling would be detrimental to the software industry. For example, Microsoft argued that the order "threatens the viability of the interconnected software ecosystem."
A group of legal researchers pointed out that various appeals courts have reached conflicting opinions on the legal status of APIs. This situation, known as a "circuit breakdown", creates uncertainty about how the law will be applied in the future. The legal scholars urged the Supreme Court to take the case so that it could establish a uniform legal standard nationwide.
The Supreme Court seems to have found these arguments convincing.
The Federal Circuit Appeal Court which produced Google v. Oracle ruling has become something of a whipping boy for the Supreme Court in recent years. The court has exclusive jurisdiction over patent cases nationwide, and it has used this power to make the law considerably more patent-friendly. Over the past 13 years, the Supreme Court has tried to inject some common sense into patent law by repeatedly overturning patent-friendly decisions by the Federal Circuit.
Oracle's battle with Google focuses on copyright law, not patents. But because the case originally included some patent cases, the Federal Circuit, which was responsible for the entire case, wound up. And the nation's most pro-patent appeals court turns out to favor expansive interpretations of copyright law.
The Supreme Court has not yet announced when it wants to hear Google's challenge to Oracle's victory, but it is likely to happen sometime in the New Year, with ruling before the current courtroom collapses in late June. We will cover the matter every step.