The U.S. Supreme Court appeared divided on Wednesday as it considered whether to protect Alphabet Inc.’s Google from a long-running lawsuit by Oracle Corp. accusing it of infringing Oracle copyrights to build the Android operating system that runs most of the world’s smartphones.
The shorthanded court, down one justice following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg last month, heard oral arguments in Google’s appeal of a lower court ruling reviving the lawsuit in which Oracle has sought at least $8 billion in damages.
Some of the eight justices expressed concern that Google simply copied Oracle’s software code instead of innovating and creating its own for mobile devices. Others emphasized that siding with Oracle could give software developers too much power with potentially harmful effects on the technology industry.
A jury cleared Google in 2016, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit overturned that decision in 2018, finding that Google’s inclusion of Oracle’s software code in Android was not permissible under U.S. copyright law.
Oracle accused Google of copying thousands of lines of computer code from its popular Java programming language without a license in order to make Android, a competing platform that has harmed Oracle’s business.
Google lawyer Thomas Goldstein told the court that the disputed Java code should not receive copyright protection because it was the “the only way” to create new programs using the programming language.
“The language only permits us to use those,” Goldstein said.
But Chief Justice John Roberts suggested Google still should have paid Oracle for a license to Java.
“Cracking the safe may be the only way to get the money that you want, but that doesn’t mean you can do it,” Roberts said.
Justice Neil Gorsuch questioned Goldstein on whether Google had simply piggybacked on Oracle’s innovation.
Gorsuch asked, “What