Hot Take: Google v Oracle

Spreading the word for the other software-law geeks: the decision has come down on Oracle v Google, and it went the right way.

Summarizing very briefly (and possibly a little inaccurately — IANAL, and I haven’t read the ruling in detail yet): the Android phone operating system, like a large fraction of the software world, is more or less built on top of the Java Virtual Machine, which was invented by Sun decades ago and bought by Oracle. Google decided to reimplement the API for the JVM to suit their needs — basically, providing a new implementation for the existing interface. This is totally normal (there are lots of reimplementations of parts of the JVM), but Oracle asserted that the API is their intellectual property, and sued.

(Note that pretty much everyone agrees that the implementation — the code itself — is copyrightable. The question was about the interface — essentially, how you call that implementation from other code. If the interface is protected by copyright law, it becomes a legal minefield to try to write compatible, alternate implementations.)

Suffice it to say, the lower courts went with Oracle, and much of the industry has been on tenterhooks ever since. A lot was riding on this — if Oracle had won, it would have tossed an enormous spanner into the software industry, and probably done a lot of damage to smaller companies. (Among other things, Querki’s user interface is based on Scala.js, which necessarily reimplements a fair chunk of the JVM API. It’s unclear whether Scala.js would have been able to survive if Oracle had won; in turn, that could have destroyed my company.)

The implication here, I believe, is that reimplementing APIs is now officially considered fair use, so the law matches the way the software industry has generally assumed things should work. So while on the one hand, this seems like an obscure technical point that most people don’t care about, for those of us in the field it is extremely important, and really good news.

So yay for the Supreme Court for getting this one right…

Lifelong programmer and software architect, specializing in online social tools and (nowadays) Scala. Architect of Querki (“leading the small data revolution”).

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