- On Monday, the US Supreme Court handed Google a monumental victory in its copyright fight against Oracle.
- A decision in Oracle’s favor “would have been potentially disastrous,” one industry analyst said.
- Experts say an Oracle win could have spurred endless copyright lawsuits and an innovation “tax.”
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
On Monday, the US Supreme Court overturned a lower court, ending a decade-long legal battle by handing Google a landmark victory in its copyright fight with Oracle — and much of Silicon Valley breathed a sigh of relief.
“Thank you 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 by the reactions, there’s a prevailing sense that Google’s win means the tech industry has dodged a bullet. Over the years that this case has dragged out, experts and insiders have held that a win for Oracle would have completely shaken up the tech industry, and not for the better.
“A ruling in Oracle’s favor would have opened the door for copyright trolls much like we’ve seen happen in the realm of software patents,” David Mooter, a senior analyst at Forrester, told Insider. “That would have given more power to big tech companies to sue their competition out of business.”
As always, the devil is in the details, but the basics of the case: In 2010, Oracle bought a now-defunct company called Sun Microsystems, including the rights to Java, a popular platform for app development. Later that same year, Oracle sued Google, alleging that it stole key pieces of Java to build the Android operating system. Specifically, a set of application programming interfaces, or APIs, that vastly simplify the process of building Java apps for Android. APIs were — and remain — the stock-standard way for apps and software to “talk” to one another.
Google contended that the APIs in question were not subject to copyright, and won the support of peers including Microsoft and IBM in its defense. Oracle, meanwhile, had the backing of Sun cofounder Scott McNealy, media groups including the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), and even the Trump administration in charging that Google using those APIs for Android was a form of theft.
The courts ultimately sidestepped whether APIs are subject to copyright, but the Supreme Court’s decision firmly establishes that whatever Google did, it ultimately constituted fair use.
Experts say that’s good news, legally speaking, not only for any of the very many Java users out there, but also for any company that uses another company’s APIs in building its software — which is essentially all of them.
“For decades at this point, the entirety of software has behaved as if either APIs were not copyrightable or as if fair use applied. This decision merely sustains that status quo,” Redmonk analyst Stephen O’Grady told Insider. “A decision in Oracle’s favor, however, would have been potentially disastrous, as literally every API would have to be newly reevaluated for legal risk.”
Indeed, experts say that an Oracle win could have opened the door for any API platform holder to turn around and litigate against users. Many companies — Oracle included — do exactly what Google did with those Java APIs. If using or “reimplementing” APIs like this carried a legal risk, the entire industry could find itself fighting lawsuit after lawsuit.
“If [the] cloud business was beset by ownership disputes over APIs, and effectively enabling copyright trolls, that would be a drag on the whole business,” said Mike Linksvayer, head of developer policy at GitHub, a Microsoft subsidiary, in praising the Supreme Court’s decision.
As Tom Krazit notes at Protocol, an Oracle win could have essentially opened the door for a “tax” on software innovation:
The APIs in question vastly streamline and simplify the task of writing software in Java, one of the world’s most popular programming languages in the world, for Android. If Google couldn’t use those APIs in Android, developers would have had to do a lot more heavy lifting for themselves, increasing the time and costs involved in writing software. That would make Android less appealing to the great number of developers who write code in Java.
A legal precedent in Oracle’s favor could have extended that principle throughout the software world, giving anyone responsible for an influential, critical API like the Java ones in question, too much power to play kingmaker.
“Given the costs and difficulties of producing alternative APIs with similar appeal to programmers, allowing enforcement here would make of the Sun Java API’s declaring code a lock limiting the future creativity of new programs. Oracle alone would hold the key,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the 6-2 majority opinion handing Google the victory.
Notably, Oracle argues the opposite, saying — without directly addressing the matter of APIs and copyright — that the Supreme Court effectively re-entrenched Google’s market power in its decision.
“The Google platform just got bigger and market power greater,” said Deborah Hellinger, senior vice president at Oracle, in a statement. “The barriers to entry 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 are examining Google’s business practices.”
Ultimately, however, the general consensus among tech industry insiders is that allowing API reimplentation under fair use leaves intact a cornerstone of the kind of technological openness that’s fueled the entire sector to whatever heights it presently enjoys.
Even though Oracle lost, in some ways it also won, according to GitHub’s Linksvayer: “It’s good for the entire software industry, including Oracle.”
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