Oral arguments in the upcoming Supreme Court case pitting tech giants Google and Oracle against each other is being delayed because of the COVID-19, or the novel coronavirus pandemic. The case was set to be heard on March 24, 2020. A reschedule date has not currently been set.
According to The Register, all Supreme Court cases with oral arguments that were set between March 23 and April 1 are also delayed.
A long running case
Before being delayed even further by the COVID-19 outbreak, Google v. Oracle was already an extensive case that had played out in lower courts many times over, only to be repeatedly appealed. The case began in 2010 with a copyright suit from Oracle that contends that Google stole thousands of lines of Java code from their platform, Java SE, and used them in their own Android platform. The lines of code are all API's, or foundational building blocks that help programs be compatible with each other. The suit was brought on after Google purchased Java's owner, Sun Microsystems.
The case was most recently heard by a federal court in 2018, who decided in favor of Oracle. Following the decision, Google rapidly appealed the case to the Supreme Court, and was accepted the following year. Each of the decisions made by a lower court, previous to the federal case, were ruled in favor of Google.
The Supreme Court had already rejected an appeal to hear Google v. Oracle in 2015 before reversing course.
Defining intellectual property
While oral arguments have been pushed back, both sides had already submitted written briefs, giving an understanding of what the companies may be arguing in the future.
Each company seeks to define APIs under a separate legal category. According to Google, APIs are "useful art," meaning that they're widespread practical use make them impossible to copyright. Oracle, meanwhile, contends that their code should be considered intellectual property, and treated accordingly.
The case has garnered widespread attention in the tech world and beyond, with Fortune Magazine going so far as to call it "tech's trial of the century." If Google loses the case, they stand to pay Oracle nine billion dollars.
The lawsuit is also important not just because of the companies involved, but also the possibly widespread ramifications of the suit. If the court decides that APIs are treated as intellectual property, the cost of designing software may go up industry-wide. Amongst Google's arguments is that a decision in Oracle's favor will slow down innovation as a result, and disproportionately harm up-and-coming software developers who may not have the funds to pay for the rights to API code. Oracle has countered that the industry's growth was not slowed by any of the decisions in their favor in lower courts.
In addition to sending in written briefs, Oracle Vice president Ken Glueck also published a blog post where he criticized other software companies, including IBM and Microsoft, for filing briefs in support of Google. Glueck alleged that both companies stood to profit if Oracle lost the case.
The Supreme Court has only ever delayed arguments two times before, both also due to widespread illness. In 1918 cases were stalled due to fears about the outbreak of Spanish Influenza. The last time that arguments were paused before then was all the way back in the 1790's, as a result of the Yellow Fever.
The Oracle v. Google case is one of several that was planned for the next month that have been pushed back. Amongst the other Supreme Court cases that were set for oral arguments during the last couple of weeks of March were a suit aimed at making President Donald Trumps tax returns and financial records available to the public and a trademark dispute surrounding the use of ".com."
Today's COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact reaching far beyond the courts, effecting almost every part of daily life, from shuttering businesses and leading to a wave of remote workers to entire states being told to "shelter in place." The pandemic has also sent stock markets tumbling, stressed the healthcare system and left millions of people newly jobless. Much like the COVID-19 issues surrounding the Supreme Court the timeline for a return to normalcy in the United States is unclear.
While much of the US and global economy is shutdown, hackers are still hard at work. Although Java, a coding language central to the Google-Oracle legal odyssey, is a key building block for many programs, its common use means that hackers can more easily find and exploit vulnerabilities. Hacker exploits, and their associated patches, are constantly being announced for Java software. Companies that don't stay up to date run the risk of a breach. Terminal emulation software can make things easier.