Saturday, June 01, 2013

Oracle v Google: The Insanity of Oracle's Appeal

A couple of years ago, Oracle sued Google for copyright and patent infringement of it's Java virtual machine and programming language. In the original complaint, Oracle claimed that Google's Android operating system infringed patents and copyrights owned by Oracle.

The results are in. Google essentially won the lawsuit with the jury ruling against Oracle on almost everything. Oracle had to pay costs for Google.

But Oracle is appealing on one issue in particular. Oracle is saying that the Java API should be protected by copyright law. There are two problems with their argument. One is that their request would break more than a century of stare decisis. Two is that their request would break the software industry.

What is an API? An API is also known as an Application Programming Interface. Every piece of software has one. Operating systems are a great example. An API for an operating system allows a programmer to write a set of instructions, a program, to talk to the operating system. With knowledge of an operating system API, programs can be written to request access to hardware, time on the CPU to run instructions and write results to disk or memory or the display.

APIs allow programs to talk to each other. An API is a set of rules that allow me to write a program that will talk to another program, often written by someone else. Once I know the rules, I can send instructions to the other program to achieve a desired result.

Java has a very well documented programming interface. Google created the Android operating system to mimic Java and still run on small devices. Google also copied part of the Java API so that programmers familiar with Java could write applications for Android without having to learn a new language. That is what Oracle is suing Google about.

A swarm of innovators has arisen to sign onto an amicus brief explaining to the appeals court that Oracle is making an absurd request. Oracle's efforts to get copyright protection for the Java API reflect an effort to cut off the air supply for Android. It would also give programmers unprecedented control over who can write compatible programs for say, an operating system or documents produced by an office productivity suite.

If Oracle prevails on appeal, the decision would mean, for example, that Microsoft could assert copyright infringement on all free software that runs on Windows. That is, unless free software were to adhere to conditions set by Microsoft. It is easy to see how Microsoft (and Oracle) would try to extract prohibitive license fees to prevent competition from taking root around them.

Over the last 30 years, copyright laws have been made so strong that the public domain is starting to suffer and that is starting to show. Enlarging rights for programmers would create a copyright thicket that is impossible for programmers to navigate. Enlarging rights for programmers would also restrict domestic programmers so much that the world would simply run around us like damage, avoiding our products for lack of interoperability.

If Oracle prevails, free software that now runs on Windows and MacOS would be in peril, subject to the whims of Microsoft and Apple. In a way, it is nuclear war in software.

Nobody wins in a war. Nobody. Oracle's appeal should be rejected immediately to prevent yet another hindrance to innovation in America.
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