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Google v Oracle: US Supreme Court turns to Obama in Java copyright war

Seeks 'views of United States' in code ownership case

The US Supreme Court hasn't decided whether it will hear arguments in the long-running dispute between Google and Oracle over Java copyrights, and it has asked the Obama administration to weigh in before it makes up its mind.

On Monday, the Supremes posted a memo inviting US Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, Jr to "express the views of the United States" before the court deliberates on the issue further.

Google brought the matter before the Supremes in October 2014, seeking to avoid further battles in the lower courts over whether its Android mobile OS infringes the copyrights of 37 Java APIs, as Oracle claims.

Google's position is that APIs shouldn't be copyrightable at all, and that early computer companies "could have blocked vast amounts of technological development" if copyright law was interpreted to include such basic components of software engineering.

Things were looking good for the Chocolate Factory in May 2012, when Judge William Alsup of the US District Court of Northern California ruled that APIs – which describe how portions of a computer program should work without specifying how those operations should be implemented in code – are not copyrightable, much as recipes and simple instructions are not copyrightable.

"When there is only one way to express an idea or function, then everyone is free to do so and no one can monopolize that expression," Judge Alsup wrote in his decision.

Oracle appealed, however, and in May 2014 the US Appeals Court of the Federal Circuit in Washington DC overturned Judge Alsup's ruling, saying it had no choice but to uphold software copyrights "until either the Supreme Court or Congress tells us otherwise."

Google has asked the Supremes to do just that, but the court has yet to decide whether it will hear the case.

If it chooses not to, Google may be in a precarious position with regard to its Android SDK, which offers APIs that mimic the behavior of the Java SDK without explicitly using any Java code. Google will be held to be infringing, but the case will be sent back down to the US District Court to determine whether the specific infringement constitutes "fair use," meaning no penalties apply.

The Obama administration has not indicated whether it intends to submit an opinion in the case, and there is no deadline for it to do so. ®

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