A victory not just for Google but developers everywhere?
Oracle v Google: All is fair in Love and War
In October 2020 we wrote a blog about the ongoing legal case between Oracle and Google. As we said back then, this bad-tempered case originated with the purchase of Sun Microsystems by Oracle. As part of this deal Oracle gained the rights to the ever-popular and widely-used Java language ...and most importantly its libraries or APIs (Application Programmer Interfaces).
This is important because in the early days of the Android mobile operating system, Google relied heavily on existing technologies such as Linux and Java along with the Java ecosystem of libraries to allow applications to be built. This allowed developers with Java knowledge to easily migrate over to Android development.
As we mentioned before, this made the Android environment accessible to a very well-established developer community and probably helped it to become the sole real rival to the iOS iPhone operating system. In fact, Android is now used in more smart phones world-wide than any other operating system with a market share that is estimated to be about 72%. As Oracle would therefore place a great weight on the huge number of Google devices utilising its Java API in its legal case, the resulting damages could have run into billions - some saying tens of billions - of dollars.
However, Oracle believed that Google had unfairly reused their technology and profited from the associated benefits. Of course, we can ask the question why is Oracle so worried about this? In part there is the not insignificant investment made by Sun Microsystems and then later by Oracle into the Java programming language and its libraries / APIs.
This meant that back in 2010 Oracle decided to sue Google over copyright infringement for their use of the Java API design. Of course, there is also the possibility that if Oracle wins the on-going court cases, then Google will need to pay them huge sums in damages. The associated court cases have now been running for more than 10 years and have been considered by several different US courts.
However, on the 5th of April 2021, the US Supreme Court voted 6-2 in favour of Google!
This is a major victory for Google. The issue presented to the Supreme Court was one of fair use. Essentially this meant that the Supreme Court had to consider whether Googles use of the Java APIs was lawful based on the doctrine of fair use or not. If Google’s use of the Java APIs was indeed fair use then what they did with Java was legally fine and Oracle would not receive any damages. However, if it was not considered fair use
then Oracle would have the basis of their claim for damages.
In the US Supreme Court ruling, Justice Stephen Breyer, in his written opinion wrote:
"to allow enforcement of Oracle's copyright here would risk harm to the public"
...this is because there are so many developers who have knowledge of, and work with, these APIs as building blocks for creating applications. If Google did not win the fair use case then such a move would turn computer code into "a lock limiting the future creativity of new programs" where "Oracle alone would hold the key."
Of course, Oracle does not agree with this judgement even going as far as to release a statement entitled, Oracle Statement regarding Oracle V. Google, saying:
“The Google platform just got bigger and market power greater—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 behaviour is exactly why regulatory authorities around the world and in the United States are examining Google’s business practices.”
From the average developer’s point of view, this should be considered a victory. It means that when developers spend time and effort in becoming skilled in a language and its core APIs, then those skills will be more transferable and have wider applicability. They will therefore be less likely to find that they are stuck in one area, with one type of technology, and only limited employment opportunities.
From a language vendors point of view, this may be considered as a worrying trend suggesting that they cannot defend their language intellectual property. This may mean that it may restrict innovation or future developments from language vendors.
Senior Vice President for Global Affairs and Chief Legal Officer, Ken Walker tweeted that Google agrees with the courts’ ruling (of course) saying that this decision was “a big win for innovation, interoperability and computing”.
It should be noted that the US Supreme Court was split 6-2 and thus 2 of the Justices did not agree that this was an example of fair use. Justice Clarence Thomas (joined by Justice Samuel Alito) wrote that he believed that the majority opinion “created a new distinction between implementing code and declaring code that makes it difficult to imagine any circumstance in which declaring code will remain protected by copyright." He even went as far as to say “that new definition eviscerates copyright”.
Of course, to some extent the use of Java on the Android platform and the arguments between Oracle and Google is a bit like closing the barn door after the horse has bolted. This is because Android now recommends Kotlin as its preferred Android development language (and has done so since May 2019).
In terms of the software development industry, although the Oracle v Google case may relate to historic use of the Java APIs, it sets a precedence for future developments, innovation and usage of APIs. Developers will view this as a victory but language vendors may well be less optimistic.
If you'd like to learn more about the development languages that underpin the world's IT systems, why not take a look at some of our coding courses.