Last week’s Supreme Court oral arguments regarding Oracle v. Google were the culmination of a decade-long legal battle between the two tech giants. Frustratingly, for all of the anticipation leading up to these hearings, only questions remain as the oral arguments were dominated by the usual search for a legal precedent, which requires tossing analogies back and forth. To the unaware, the banter at times felt overly simplistic and occasionally nonsensical. This is, however, all a part of the process.
“If a team takes your best players, a football team, the only way that those players could actually perform at a high level is if you give that team your playbook. I don’t think anyone would say that is right.” - Associate Justice Clarence Thomas
“Let's say that someone copies the headings in your brief, and they copy the organization in your brief, which sections you put first and how you organize them. Would your argument say that that is perfectly fine so long as they write their own text?” - Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.
The background and implications of Oracle v. Google have been covered by ProgrammableWeb and others ad nauseam. If you are unaware or need a reminder make sure to check out our previous coverage:
Much of the media analysis following the event focused on these analogies, and insinuated (or directly stated), that the simplicity of these comparisons highlights how out of touch and confused by technology the Justices are. However, in a humorous turn of irony, these statements by media pundits more aptly highlight that it is tech journalists who are confused about the Supreme Court, not the other way around.
The whole reason a case gets to the Supreme Court is because it's an issue that hasn't been dealt with before. The court’s job is to apply precedent (existing legal decisions) to a new scenario. This requires analogy making. The simpler the analogy, the easier it is for them to apply the appropriate standard. Their ability to take highly complex issues, and simplify them to elementary analogies is actually a credit to how well they can understand issues across the spectrum.
It is important to note that what the public witnesses during oral arguments is not the Supreme Court’s introduction to the case. In fact, it is almost the opposite. Justices will have already read through multiple briefs, each hundreds of pages long, that outline each side’s position and it is very possible that they have already made up their mind on at least portions of the case. The subsequent conversation represents an attempt to hone in on areas that need clarification and finalize their perspective.
Additionally, it would be tempting to read into the analogies drawn during oral arguments and assume that they outline the direction that the Supreme Court is likely to take when ruling on the case, but that would be unwise. It is impossible to know if any argument is an attempt to confirm their position in the positive or negative. What I mean by this is that it isn’t uncommon for a Justice to bring up an analogy that they aren't sold on in order to solidify their opinion based on the lawyer’s response.
So where does this leave us? It is possible that the Supreme Court could rule that APIs are copyrightable and that Google’s use of Java does not equate to fair use. This would be dramatic and potentially have some far reaching implications. But it isn’t likely. What is more likely is that some, if not all, of this case is remanded (sent back for further review) for the lower courts to decide on with a narrower scope. If and when this happens, it is likely that we will have a clearer picture of the road forward.
Make sure to check back with ProgrammableWeb as this case progresses as we will be continuing our coverage as more information becomes available.