🏠 Alejandro Barreto — Software Engineer in Austin, TX

Oracle v. Google is crazy important

Oracle v. Google… have you heard of it?

This case will decide, without exaggeration, the future of software development and billions of dollars. Seriously.


What happened? Let’s break it down…

In the mid-2000s, Google knew that it would need a lot of developers to build apps for its forthcoming Android platform. To speed up the process, Google re-implemented the Java programming language rather than developing a new programming language from scratch. Google wrote new code to execute Java programs according to the exact specifications of Sun’s official Java software (Oracle subsequently acquired Sun). This allowed thousands of existing Java programmers to become Android developers without having to learn a new language.

To re-implement Java, Google needed to copy the names and argument types of functions like java.lang.Math.max. Otherwise a Java program that used these functions wouldn’t work on Google’s operating system. Section 102(b) of the Copyright Act says that no one can copyright an “idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery.” Google concluded that functions like Math.max are “methods of operation” because programmers “operate” the Java platform by invoking them. Hence, Google didn’t purchase a license from Sun, leading to a lawsuit a few years later.

This is a widespread practice in the software industry. Oracle, for example, re-implemented Amazon’s S3 API so that customers who built software for Amazon’s cloud platform could easily switch to Oracle’s rival cloud platform.


Google vs. Oracle (logos)

So what’s the big deal?

Here’s the problem: Treating APIs as copyrightable would have a profound negative impact on interoperability, and, therefore, innovation. APIs are ubiquitous and fundamental to all kinds of program development. It is safe to say that all software developers use APIs to make their software work with other software. For example, the developers of an application like Firefox use APIs to make their application work with various OSes by asking the OS to do things like make network connections, open files, and display windows on the screen. Allowing a party to assert control over APIs means that a party can determine who can make compatible and interoperable software, an idea that is anathema to those who create the software we rely on everyday. Put clearly, the developer of a platform should not be able to control add-on software development for that platform.

Take, for example, a free and open source project like Samba, which runs the shared folders and network drives in millions of organizations. If Samba could be held to have infringed the Microsoft’s copyright in its SMB protocol and API, with which it inter-operates, it could find itself on the hook for astronomical damages or facing an injunction requiring that it stop providing its API and related services, leaving users to fend for themselves.


Even if APIs were copyrightable, Google argued that it could use them for free thanks to “fair use.” As Alsup explained, “The policy behind the right of fair use is to encourage and allow the development of new ideas that build on earlier ones, thus providing a counterbalance to the copyright policy to protect creative works.”

All programmers know this. But what’s common sense to programmers is incomprehensible to some judges.


But the Google lawyers “did an abysmal job”


So how did Oracle sue for $9 billion in damages? With Harry Potter?!? Learn how on this 3 min NPR podcast!

Harry Potter Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

How SCOTUS rules in June 2021 may dramatically change the software world.

By the way, that’s not the only big legal thing happening in the software world… see the GitHub youtube-dl takedown (thanks RIAA!), GitHub banning users that re-upload it, despite it being uploaded to GitHub’s official DMCA repo, and GitHub being sympathetic to its developers:

“This one annoyed me,” [CEO] Friedman says. “Perhaps because of the importance of tools like youtube-dl for archivists, and our related archive program and funding of the Internet Archive: We are thinking about how GitHub can proactively help developers in more DMCA cases going forward, and take a more active role in reforming/repealing 1201.”