The Supreme Court said on Friday that it will hear a dispute between tech giants Oracle and Google in a blockbuster case that could lead to billions of dollars in fines and shape copyright law in the internet era.
The case concerns 11,500 lines of code that Google was accused of copying from Oracle's Java programming language. Google deployed the code in Android, now the most popular mobile operating system in the world. Oracle sued Google in 2010 alleging that the use of its code in Android violated copyright law.
Google won two victories in the lower courts but ultimately lost on appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which ruled last year for Oracle. Oracle has previously said it is entitled to $9 billion in damages, though no official penalty has been set.
Java was developed by Sun Microsystems, which Oracle purchased in a deal valued at $7.4 billion that was completed in 2010.
Underlying the legal issues in the case is a technical dispute over the nature of the code that Google used. Google has said that the code was essentially functional — akin to copying the placement of keys on a QWERTY keyboard. Oracle maintains that the code, part of Java's application programming interface, or API, is a creative product, "like the chapter headings and topic sentences of an elaborate literary work."
A number of high-profile tech firms urged the top court to take the case in order to side with Google.
Microsoft wrote in a friend-of-the-court brief submitted to the justices that letting the lower court's opinion stand "threatens disastrous consequences for innovation." In another brief, companies including Firefox maker Mozilla, Etsy and Medium wrote that the decision could "completely restructure the way in which software production, competition, and innovation occur, especially on the internet."
The Trump administration has weighed in on the side of Oracle. Solicitor General Noel Francisco, writing on behalf of the Department of Justice, shrugged off the warnings from the technology companies. Francisco acknowledged that there were concerns about the effect that a win for Oracle could have on the technology industry.
"But," he wrote, "the court of appeals simply endorsed the unremarkable proposition that wholesale copying of thousands of lines of copyrighted code into a competing commercial product for the purpose of attracting developers familiar with the copyright owner's work, while causing actual commercial harm to the copyright owner, is not fair use."
A decision in the case will come before July.
The case is Google v. Oracle America, No. 18-956.