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Supreme Court close to deciding on Oracle vs. Google review

The White House recommended the Supreme Court not hear an appeal in the Oracle vs. Google court case, instead telling Google to try for a fair use case.

The eyes of the computer programming world are on the Supreme Court now as the industry awaits a decision on whether the justices will review an appeal in the long-running Oracle vs. Google lawsuit regarding APIs and copyright protection.

If the White House has its say, the court won't dig into Google's appeal of a lower-court ruling that favored Oracle. Earlier this week, U.S. Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. sided with Oracle and recommended the Supreme Court not hear the case. The court has an end-of-May deadline for the final decision on whether to review the appeal.

The solicitor general's office oversees government litigation before the Supreme Court and is at times asked by the court for recommendations about hearing other cases.

The resolution of the Oracle vs. Google matter has the potential for wide-reaching effects beyond the courtroom and any settlement money. APIs provide a common language, allowing different computer programs to talk to each other. Google's claim is not that computer code can't be copyrighted, but that small chunks of code that serve as industry standards -- such as the headers in Java -- should be free of copyright protection.

Another avenue for Google to take

It's unclear whether a court would see the Java APIs used in Android as falling under fair use.

While siding with Oracle and backing the idea of APIs as subject to copyrights, Verilli stated that the best way to resolve the dispute between the companies is to determine whether Google has a fair use right to use the APIs. This approach gives Google a possible new tactic, making the Supreme Court's decision of whether to hear the case not necessarily the end of the legal battle. The situation is further complicated, however, by the fact that there are no firm rules for fair use. Instead, fair use is always decided on a case-by-case basis.

It's unclear whether a court would see the Java APIs used in Android as falling under fair use. However, regardless of Google's future choices, if the Supreme Court decides to go along with the Obama Administration's recommendation, it would make a difference that goes beyond corporate executives and legal teams. Since fair use is evaluated on a case-by-case basis, a rejection of the appeal review would open the door to a lot of uncertainty for programmers.

Initial case started five years ago

The lawsuit began in 2010 when Oracle claimed Google improperly used names, declarations and header lines from Java APIs in Android. In May 2012, U.S. District Judge William Alsup of the Northern District of California ruled that APIs are not subject to copyright. Alsup wrote, "The method specification [API] is the idea. The method implementation [API implementation] is the expression. No one may monopolize the idea."

However, in May 2014, the U.S. Appeals Court for the Federal Circuit reversed the decision, writing that the "declaring code and the structure, sequence and organization of the API packages are entitled to copyright protection."

In January of this year, Google petitioned the Supreme Court to overrule that decision. The court then asked the Obama Administration to provide its recommendation on hearing the Oracle vs. Google case. With the administration's position on the subject now clear, interested parties are waiting on the Supreme Court's decision to find out whether APIs will continue to be eligible for copyright protection and what that will mean for the future of the technology industry.

Jessica Sirkin is associate site editor of SearchOracle. Email her at [email protected] and follow us on Twitter: @SearchOracle.

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