- On Monday, the US Supreme Court gave Google a monumental victory in its copyright fight against Oracle.
- A decision in favor of Oracle “would have been potentially disastrous,” said one industry analyst.
- Experts say an Oracle win could have sparked a myriad of copyright lawsuits and a “tax” on innovation.
- See more stories on the Insider business page.
On Monday, the US Supreme Court overturned a lower court, ending a decade-long legal battle by awarding Google a historic victory in its copyright fight with Oracle, and much of Silicon Valley sighed. relieved.
“Thanks to the Supreme Court for saving all modern computing from an onslaught of copyright trolls,” former Facebook security chief and current Stanford professor Alex Stamos said on Twitter.
Indeed, judging from the reactions, the prevailing feeling is that Google’s victory means the tech industry has dodged a bullet. Over the years that this case has dragged on, experts and insiders have argued that a victory for Oracle would have rocked the technology industry completely, and not for the better.
“A ruling in favor of Oracle would have opened the door to copyright trolls, as we’ve seen in the software patent arena,” David Mooter, a senior analyst at Forrester, told Insider. “That would have given the big tech companies more power to sue their competition and leave it.”
As always, the devil is in the details, but the basics: In 2010, Oracle bought a now-defunct company called Sun Microsystems, including the rights to Java, a popular platform for application development. Later that year, Oracle sued Google, claiming it stole key pieces of Java to build the Android operating system. Specifically, a set of application programming interfaces, or APIs, that greatly simplify the process of creating Java applications for Android. APIs were, and still are, the standard way that applications and software “communicate” with each other.
Google argued that the APIs in question were not copyrighted and won the support of its peers, including Microsoft and IBM, in its defense. Oracle, meanwhile, had the backing of Sun co-founder Scott McNealy, media groups like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), and even the Trump administration for accusing Google that using those APIs for Android was a form of theft.
The courts ultimately evaded whether the APIs are copyrighted, but the Supreme Court’s decision firmly establishes that anything Google did ultimately constituted fair use.
Experts say this is good news, legally speaking, not just for any of the many Java users out there, but also for any company that uses another company’s APIs to build their software, which are essentially all of them.
“For decades at this point, the entire software has behaved as if the APIs are not copyrighted or fair use applies. This decision simply maintains that status quo,” said Redmonk analyst Stephen O’Grady. to Insider. “However, a decision in favor of Oracle would have been potentially disastrous as literally all APIs would have to be reassessed for legal risk.”
In fact, experts say that an Oracle victory could have opened the door for any API platform owner to turn around and litigate against users. Many companies, including Oracle, do exactly what Google did with those Java APIs. If the use or “redeployment” of APIs like this entailed a legal risk, the entire industry could face one lawsuit after another.
“Yes [the] The cloud business was beset by ownership disputes over APIs and effectively allowing copyright trolls, that would be a drag on the entire business, “said Mike Linksvayer, head of developer policy at GitHub, a subsidiary. Microsoft, praising the Supreme Court decision.
As Tom Krazit points out in Protocol, an Oracle victory could have essentially opened the door to a “tax” on software innovation:
The APIs in question greatly speed up and simplify the task of writing software in Java, one of the world’s most popular programming languages, for Android. If Google couldn’t use those APIs on Android, developers would have had to do a lot more work themselves, increasing the time and costs involved in writing software. That would make Android less attractive to the large number of developers who write code in Java.
A legal precedent in favor of Oracle could have extended that principle to the entire software world, giving anyone responsible for a critical and influential API like the Java ones in question too much power to play king-size.
“Given the costs and difficulties of producing alternative APIs with similar appeal to programmers, allowing the application here would make Sun Java API declaration code a block that limits future creativity of new programs. Only Oracle would have the key, “wrote Judge Stephen Breyer. in the opinion of the majority 6-2 handing the victory to Google.
In particular, Oracle argues otherwise, saying, without directly addressing the issue of APIs and copyright, that the Supreme Court effectively reaffirmed Google’s market power in its decision.
“Google’s platform got bigger and the power of the market,” Deborah Hellinger, Oracle’s senior vice president, said in a statement. “The barriers to entry are higher and the ability to compete lower. They stole Java and spent a decade litigating as only a monopolist can. This behavior is exactly why regulatory authorities around the world and in the United States they are examining Google’s business practices. “
Ultimately, however, the general consensus among tech industry insiders is that allowing API re-implementation with fair use leaves intact a cornerstone of the kind of tech openness that has propelled the entire industry to the heights of that you currently enjoy.
Although Oracle lost, it somehow also won, according to GitHub’s Linksvayer: “It’s good for the entire software industry, including Oracle.”