Often teased for their ambivalence toward technology – Chief Justice John Roberts once asked a lawyer in 2010 to explain the difference between an email and a pager – the justices this week were forced to grapple with complicated programming concepts in a multi-billion-dollar copyright dispute between tech giants Google and Oracle.
So how did the justices do at trading their black robes in for white hats? Not too bad, said several programmers and tech leaders who were involved in the case.
“This may be one of the first foundational programming cases where the justices dove deep into the technology before applying the law,” said Bruce Gustafson, president of Developers Alliance, a trade group that had filed a brief in the case in support of Google. “I’m actually pretty impressed with what came out.”
What came out was a landmark ruling for Google in which Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for a 6-2 majority, found that the code the search company copied from Oracle to build its Android mobile operating system was a “fair use” under copyright law. Not only is Google in the clear but programmers industrywide may now continue to draw on “libraries,” or code written by others, to perform common software tasks.
But before Breyer came to the court’s legal conclusion, he spent roughly five pages of the…