Why US apex court ruling in Google v. Oracle case is good news for mobile app developers in India

- 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

Anand Parthasarathy
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.