On March 24th, the dispute between Oracle Inc and Google, which dates back to 2012, will be in the hands of the US Supreme Court. The case, which began with Oracle’s accusation that Google had violated its patent and copyright on Java, the famous app programming interface (API), will have a huge impact on the software development universe.
To start from the beginning, Java was created by the company Sun Microsystems in 1991 (it began to be distributed in 1995). It is one of the most important APIs of the digital era, since it allowed generating applications capable of running on any operating system (OS), which was a great qualitative leap for developers, who previously had to version their software for each OS, such as Windows, Linux or Mac.
The slogan of the standard edition (SE) of Java became “write once, run anywhere”. Java programmers developed different modules -packages of code lines- which made the work of developers even easier.
In 2005, Google stayed with Android and faced the same problem that Java had solved. As Oracle argues, today the owner of Java after acquiring Sun Microsystem in 2010, Google was at risk of losing a large part of the search engine market if it failed to develop its application for smartphones.
According to Oracle, Google negotiated with Sun to obtain a Java SE license, but was not interested in an open-source license – “they didn’t want to give back” to the community, says Oracle – so it looked for a private one. Sun did not accept Google’s requirement to “have no limits” to modify the API code, as that would potentially make Android incompatible with Java SE.
The agreement was never finalized and Google chose to create its own API, according to Oracle, copying the Java SE code line by line. The argument is that Google copied 37 of the Java code packages – 11,330 lines and the “intricate organization and relationship” between them, according to demand – and completed the rest with an altered version of the existing ones plus a bit of original work .
The final blow that sealed the conflict: Google began offering its API to developers for free, which made Java SE an expensive alternative. “It is very difficult to compete with something free, especially if you are using our software,” said the CEO of Oracle.
In the initial trial, in 2012, Oracle sued for USD 8.8 billion in damages, but two District Courts ruled that Google had not infringed Oracle patents, arguing that the copied lines of code were not protected by copyright (read).
In the end, Oracle won a victory in the US Federal Circuit of Appeals in 2017, which reversed both decisions ensuring that APIs, such as Java, are protected by copyright and that the way Google applied them in its own software constituted a violation.
The Federal Circuit of Appeals said that Google had generated software as similar to Java as possible to attract developers to its orbit: “Google devised a licensing scheme to attract programmers and simultaneously market the platform,” says the ruling (read), finding that its purpose was to market and was not protected by fair use.
Google has raised the case to the Supreme Court of Justice and the result will be significant, because any copyright determination on this type of software can have a gigantic impact on the development of new applications since the APIs are an essential tool and its use is massive.
This is why Google has received the support of natural competitors, such as Mozilla, owner of the Firefox browser, IBM and, among others, associations and academies specialized on the internet.
The concern that unites them is that a ruling in favor of Oracle ends the interoperability to which the digital universe aspires, moving to a reality in which each company develops software compatible only with its ecosystem, which they assure would put deep obstacles on innovation.
They are also concerned about potential new copyright lawsuits from third parties that access the rights of old software that has been used to develop new programs.
Oracle’s response was presented this week as part of its opening statement: “No company will make the huge investment necessary to launch innovative work such as Java SE if this Court declares that a competitor can copy it precisely because it is attractive.”