- Judgment establishes that programming tools like APIs are free for all to use and no one agency can claim copyright
- This will implicitly free Indian software programmers and Value Added Resellers to create apps for Android phones, without having to pay punishing royalties
April 10, 2021; In a landmark decision on April 5 , the US Supreme Court has ruled that Google did not violate the copyright of software giant Oracle when it used, what are known as Application Programming Interfaces or APIs , of the Java programming language in its Android operating system.
Oracle acquired Java as part of its buy-out of Sun Microsystems in 2010 and within weeks after that, it sued Google for $ 9 billion for what it alleged was the theft by Google and Android, of 11,500 lines of code across 37 Java APIs.
In a 6-2 decision the apex US court said: "Google's copying of the API to re-implement a user interface, taking only what was needed to allow users to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative programme, constituted a fair use of that material."
In other words Google is free to use Java APIs.
This article appeared in Swarajya on April 9
But the ruling has wider ramifications: by implication, the world-wide software development industry is also free to use these APIs without having to pay Oracle for the privilege.
This is a critical development for India’s vast software ecosystem, with lakhs of programmers working in startups or as individual developers in the Gig or self employed sector, to create more and yet more apps for Android devices. While the vast majority of such apps are free-to-use for phone owners, the developers earn royalty from within-app services or from Value Added Resellers or VARs who provide these apps on phones as pre-installed goodies. A ruling of this nature in the highest court in the US, will inevitably inhibit major technology companies from trying to monetize pre-written code that is widely used to enable apps to be interoperable across multiple consumer platform.
Replete with ironies
Oracle’s attempt for a decade and more, to monetize its acquisition of Java, is replete with ironies. The originators of Java at Sun Microsystems coined a mantra to describe their brainchild: ‘Write once, run anywhere’. It was first released in 1995 as a new and ubiquitous software programming language, where the source code was free to use. Sun was to be seen at all “Open Source” events in India, touting the free availability of Java ( they gave away thousands of CDs with the software, usually bundled with the “free” Open Office suite, they also created as a competitor to Microsoft’s proprietary MS Office suite)
In public at any rate, Oracle went along with the always qualified ‘we are a free platform’ image of Java, after acquiring it, but as it now transpires, it was quickly identifying major Java users who were freely copying its APIs – and the biggest gorilla in the room was Google. The search giant had acquired smartphone software developer Android in 2005 and had used its Intellectual Property (IP) to launch a free-to use mobile cell phone operating system of the same name. Today 3 out of 4 mobile phones world-wide, have Android running under the screen
What is API?
What exactly is an API? The US supreme court ruling (full text here) written on behalf of the majority, by Justice Stephen Breyer, provides a marvelously succinct explanation: It says API is a tool that “allow(s) programmers to use . . . prewritten code to build certain functions into their own programmes, rather than write their own code to perform those functions from scratch. Through an API, a programmer can draw upon a vast library of prewritten code to carry out complex tasks.”
Google argued successfully that the Java APIs were free and open and were in the public domain just like the Java programming language itself. In other words, you can’t claim something is free to use and then claim a royalty if programmers use the tool to offer more free solutions and tools. It was supported in its interpretation by two other infotech giants -- IBM and Microsoft -- who submitted their opinions in the role of amicus curiae or ‘friend of the court’. Interestingly, the US government itself, through its Department of Justice, came out in support of Oracle.
If there is one lesson for Indian IT practitioners from the decade-long Google-versus-Oracle drama, it is this: There is little to choose among large global technology corporations who all have fairly similar hardnosed agendas. But just once in a while, when the biggies battle it out, the rest of us get a bonus or two.