Why Is Oracle Suing Google and What’s at Stake?

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Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

For the past week or so, Google — which, uh, I imagine you’re familiar with — and Oracle, an enormous but less flashy technology company, have been sparring in court over Google’s use of a version of Java, the programming language owned by Oracle, in its Android operating system. At the heart of the matter is the question of whether or not the Java API could be copyrighted, and whether Google’s use of it was exempt under fair use. In short, Oracle wants to know if it can get some cash because Google used a program it created.

When Google developed the first versions of Android during the ‘00s, Java was owned by Sun Microsystems, and its various forms were generally open source — meaning that developers could use open-source code in their own software and modify the code as they saw fit. The version Google used was not open, however, and when Oracle acquired Sun (and therefore Java), in 2010, the company saw an opportunity. By that time, Android had gotten bigger, and Oracle felt that it was owed money.

Over the past six years, the companies have argued various angles in court, with judgments at various levels waffling over what parts of software can and cannot be copyrighted (patent infringement claims were raised and dismissed as well). Oracle, using Google’s $21 billion in Android profit as a benchmark, is seeking a significant $9 billion in damages.

As is usually the case with jury trials surrounding the intricacies of technology, getting people who aren’t computer scientists or IT professionals to understand the nitty-gritty is … complicated.

Motherboard’s recap of the trial features this particularly telling exchange between the judge, William Alsup, and former Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz. It concerns the operating system GNU, whose name stands for “GNU’s Not Unix.”

“The G part stands for GNU?” Alsup asked in disbelief.

“Yes,” said Schwartz on the stand.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” said the 71-year-old Clinton appointee.

(Alsup is not entirely wrong here.)

Among the analogies lawyers have used to try and explain what an API is are filing cabinets, as well as breakfast menus and power plugs. I don’t have a great analogy of my own, but in lay terms, an API (short for “Application Programming Interface”) allows coders to access systems and computational functions that they did not create themselves. For instance, the Facebook API is what allows entities that are not Facebook to interact with Facebook’s data. APIs are how otherwise-discrete systems are able to communicate with one another.

At the heart of the case is the seesaw (and industry-dependent) balance between proprietary and open software, each of which have their proponents. To stereotype: People who want to get rich off of technology favor proprietary software, and coders who want to use technology as a means of increasing opportunity for the disenfranchised favor open source.

Open-source proponents point to the inability to copyright software as key to the technology industry’s rapid growth: Because companies can’t rest on their laurels and draw rents from proprietary software, the argument goes, they’re forced to innovate, and the industry drives forward. That somewhat progressive idea clashes with the, well, laws of the United States, which generally favor compensating corporations for the use of their work.

In an amicus brief filed in 2013, a number of high-profile computer scientists, argued that open software was key to a thriving tech industry, beginning with the ability to clone IBM’s BIOS software for competing computer-makers like Compaq and Gateway.

The uncopyrightable nature of APIs spurs the creation of software that otherwise would not have been written. When programmers can freely reimplement or reverse engineer an API without the need to negotiate a costly license or risk a lawsuit, they can create compatible software that the interface’s original creator might never have envisioned or had the resources to create. Moreover, compatible APIs enable people to switch platforms and services freely, and to find software that meets their needs regardless of what browser or operating system they use. Without the compatibility enabled by the open nature of APIs, consumers could be forced to leave their data behind when they switch to a new service.

Should Google lose (a ways off, and both sides have indicated they plan to appeal), a leading principle of the software industry — that it is permissible, and even encouraged, to build off of the work of others — is at risk. Furthermore, it could have a chilling effect on developers and coders hoping to use other systems, given fears of costly licensing or litigation. And, thus, they might begin to construct fully closed systems, unable to communicate with or transfer data to systems outside of their own. That’s no good for the industry, and it’s even worse for consumers.