Last week, Google won a major victory in its lawsuit against Oracle. The case, which centers around Google’s implementation of JAVA in the Android operating system, has gotten a lot of press in tech circles, especially for those interested in mobile devices.
However, The true impact of the ruling will likely be felt by almost anyone who uses a computer, but especially anyone who is blogging or routinely posting content on the Web, such as bloggers. Or at least it could have been.
That makes it important to really understand what the case was about, what the judge said and what that could mean for other potential cases in the future.
Though it’s a ruling that is seemingly just one part of a much larger case, it has the potential to become one of the most important legal rulings in the development of the Web and, possibly, modern computing in general.
The Background and the Ruling
The lawsuit started in 2010 when Oracle sued Google claiming that the search giant had violated their copyrights and patents that they held in the JAVA programming language. Oracle had acquired those rights when they purchased the previous developers of JAVA, Sun Microsystems, earlier that year.
The case went before a jury in May and was broken up into two parts, one for the copyrights and one for the patents. On the copyright issues, the part that we are focusing on, Google claimed that it developed its version of JAVA in a “clean room” environment, meaning that no SUN/Oracle JAVA code was used.
However, Oracle was able to point to several lines of code that were used, most of those portions, however, were in the JAVA APIs.
APIs, or Application Programming Interfaces, are basically a set of instructions that tell other programs how to interact with it. We hear a lot about APIs online as it relates to connecting one service to another. For example, if you want to write an application that works with Facebook, you need to both understand and have access to the Facebook API, which you will access with in your code.
The same holds true for other applications that need to talk with each other, including applications on the same computer or mobile device. If Google hadn’t copied these portions of the API, then JAVA applications would have needed to be rewritten to work with Google’s JAVA API. However, one of the benefits of JAVA is that it is platform independent, meaning an app written in JAVA can work equally well on Mac, Windows, Linux, Android, etc.
When Oracle’s arguments made it before the jury, they eventually returned a split verdict, ruling that Google’s use of the APIs was an infringement but that they were split on whether or not it was a fair use, which would have meant Google was not liable for damages.
However, after the case was over, the judge dropped a bombshell on Oracle’s arguments, with a ruling (that had previously been postponed) that the APIs in the case do not qualify for copyright protection, casting serious doubts on if any APIs could in the future.
What this Means for Blogging
APIs, as I mentioned above, are used in just about everything that runs on a computer. Since no application can do much on its own, at least needing to talk with the operating system, virtually everything you run on your computer uses an API.
If Oracle had won on its claim, it’s possible that using or implementing an API could have also been considered an infringement. After all, the main thing Google was accused of infringing was the class names, packages and other elements necessary specifically to allow other applications to connect with JAVA.
Theoretically, this could have meant that all uses of an API could have required a license since you have to copy elements of an API to use it. This could have created a tremendous mess for modern computing. Though that scenario isn’t actually likely for various reasons (the biggest being an implied license argument), it could have been chaos resulting in a lot of legal threats. This is especially true for the open source movement, which would face accusations of integrating non-open source code in with open source code so that OS apps could work with proprietary ones.
However, the Web could have been in much more probable trouble. If APIs can be copyrightable, then many Web services, such as OpenStack and Rackspace, would have to change their APIs as they largely copied APIs from other services to increase ease of implementation.
And this is true for a lot of Web services, some that you are aware of and using consciously, and many you probably aren’t.
In short, many of the services you depend on to keep your site running are likely built on duplicated APIs. While not many people thought twice about it before, an Oracle win could have thrown a wrench into the entire Web,
In short, it’s tough to say what exactly would have happened if Oracle had won, but it’s clear that a lot of services and software would have needed to be hastily rewritten and/or relicensed to make sure that they weren’t infringing.
Most people aren’t going to understand the importance of this case because the status quo is what won (right or wrong). Therefore, nothing actually changes and all that happens it that things move forward as is, at least until there’s an appeal or a conflicting ruling elsewhere.
Still, this was (and is) a case that stabs right at one of the most fundamental elements of both the Web and of software development as a whole. This means that, in a strange way, this case can be seen as a turning point for the Web, but one where nothing turned at all.
So, keep blogging and running your websites as if nothing changed, because nothing did. But spare a few thoughts for how different the Web might be, and how panicked it might be right now, if the results of that lawsuit had been significantly different.
Jonathan Bailey founded and continues to write at Plagiarism Today, a site about content theft and copyright issues on the internet. He also manages CopyByte, a company that protects online content, and writes a regular column for BloggingPro.