Patents · Software Architecture and Design

What does the DOJs decision to not allow the Oracle-Google appeal to go to Supreme Court portend?

Julie Tittler CEO & Founder of Semafores, Inc.

June 5th, 2015

For you patent lawyers, and software engineers out there...

On May 19th, the Solitor General of the US urged the Supreme Court not to hear Google's appeal against the ruling of the Federal Appeals court against it. Oracle brought suit against Google's use of Java API stubs within Android for interoperabliity purposes. Google argued that APIs (application programming interfaces) are only a very small piece of Java's defining code; that they merely act as "common signposts". They argued that APIs should not be copyrightable because they are not the implementing code of the instructions, merely a communications dictionary to the functions. They act as industry standards for 3rd party use of products, and as such are subject to fair use. Oracle disagrees. Oracle believes all aspects of source code, including APIs should be copyrightable.

As a software entrepreneur doing cross platform mobile development this worries me. I use APIs all the time to integrate with third party products. That functionality used in websites to integrate with PayPal, Twitter, and Facebook are public facing APIs. With this ruling, there is nothing stopping these companies from deciding to charge for access to these APIs. They could one day allow it, and the next not allow at. That's what Oracle did.

Java was developed by Sun Microsystems. It was regularly used as on open source project, although never released under any of the open source licenses (I think). Numerous innovators have used java in this way for years. Oracle bought Sun. Now Oracle is deciding that Java shouldn't be used in an open source fashion anymore.

What does this ruling portend for mobile developers who are doing cross platform development with Apache Cordova? It translates basic HTML5/CSS3 into native code for numerous mobile operating systems. This native code is direct access to native APIs on those OSes. What if Apple or Google or Microsoft decides at some point in the future that they aren't going to allow access to their APIs via 3rd parties like the open source Apache project?

I hate the thought of having to develop 3 separate versions of my product. It would destroy my time to market. Do I need to worry about this? Will Oracle's win against Google's Android throw a major monkey wrench into the mobile development landscape?

Jeremy Grodberg Web CTO & Software Architect - Available

June 5th, 2015

I'm not a lawyer, but I wouldn't worry about the position of the United States in this matter. What the Solicitor general argued is that the API is part of the Library, everyone agrees that Oracle has a copyright on the Library, and there's no justification that some part of the library is not covered by the copyright that everyone agrees covers the whole library. When you look at the sheer volume and complexity of the API Google copied, I would have to agree with that position. 

The real question is "is copying the API fair use?" That question has yet to be decided, and if this appeal is denied or decided in Oracle's favor, the litigation will continue to a new trial to decide the fair use question. The "fair use" question is the important question, IMHO, and that's the one I'd worry about when they get around to litigating it. 

In any case, it won't affect Cordova, because they are not implementing someone else's API, they are only calling it like everybody else, and it's been established that calling a copyrighted API is not a violation of its copyright. 

Daniel Austin Founder and CEO at GRIN Technologies, Inc.

June 5th, 2015

This won't make much difference, for your situation anyway. Companies like PayPal and Facebook make their high-level service APIs publicly available for free because it makes them money, and they aren't likely to change that. However if they wanted to do so, they could charge regardless of the Oracle/Google rulings. Companies like Salesforce charge for using their services today. 

The Oracle/Google conflict is burdened with past history and company conflict, and it doesn't really relate to the APIs that you are concerned with, but the lower-level programming APIs for the Java language itself. And Oracle's claims in this case aren't entirely groundless. Oracle sees itself as defending the integrity of Java. I won't weigh in further on either side here, but it's not a one-sided issue. 

Regards,

D-

Disclaimer: I worked at Sun, PayPal and other companies mentioned here.

Akshay Rangnekar Co-Founder and CTO at Source - Lifestyle at your fingertips

June 15th, 2015

This ruling does not apply to you if you are an app developer. The ruling is not against Google because they used Java. It was that they effectively "copied" the APIs when they made them available to developers on Android, and wouldn't abide by Sun's terms (which were for the most part just don't screw around and change bits of the API).

However, to your real worry:
As a software entrepreneur doing cross platform mobile development this worries me. I use APIs all the time to integrate with third party products. That functionality used in websites to integrate with PayPal, Twitter, and Facebook are public facing APIs. With this ruling, there is nothing stopping these companies from deciding to charge for access to these APIs. They could one day allow it, and the next not allow at.   

Yes they can. This ruling has NO impact on that. Any company can choose to change their pricing at any time and as long as you don't have a long-term contract with them, you're stuck either paying their new price or stopping using their service. The fact that it's a "public" API doesn't protect you in the way you seem to believe it does.