Oracle founder Larry Ellison may have only been trying to recoup losses from a disastrous merger with Sun Microsystems. Still, a decade-old lawsuit may have far-reaching consequences for software development today. The hotly contested subject of discussion is the humble API – a utilitarian string of code that underpins how an external app interacts with a program or service.
It was 2009, and the acquisition of the enterprise hardware provider should have been the yin to Oracle's enterprise software yang. Unfortunately, Sun was foundering, and Ellison was left trying to staunch the outgoing cash flow. The CEO and his company filed a copyright suit against Google for allegedly using Java-emulating scripts within its Android operating system. Had Oracle won the intellectual property argument in 2012 and collected its billions in damages from Google, the Sun-developed Java code could have made Oracle's purchase a savvy one. Ellison's empire may have lost that court battle but moved to appeal it a few years later.
A Federal appeals court breathed new life into Oracle's suit in 2014 when it ruled to partially reverse the earlier Google-favored court decision. The database provider celebrated its victory by adding an additional 40 major and minor releases spanning six versions to its suit. They may have lost the most recent battle for software development's API soul, but the war continues as the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) agrees to hear Google’s argument to keep APIs copyright-free.
Other big tech players are coming out in support of Google’s free-range API argument. The Electronic Frontier Foundation recently issued a statement explaining that “allowing copyright on APIs is a terrible idea for computer science.” MuleSoft’s CTO, Uri Sarid, described APIs as a nothing more than a programmed set of steps. He opined that they were neither a "creative work" or a "personal and distinctive" expression of ideas and, thus, shouldn't be copyrighted. Even Google's competitor Microsoft expressed concerns about proprietary protections for APIs in its SCOTUS filing.
Oracle offered a spirited response to being cast as the villain in the API story: "While Google would prefer to live in a world unencumbered by intellectual property rights, in the real-world copyrights are an essential protection and incentive for innovation," a spokesperson said.
Modern programming relies on open-APIs to ensure the smooth running of a user's online life, like when a web browser interacts with Amazon or a smartphone provides directions. It works behind the scenes to ensure a photo taken on an iPhone can be edited using a Microsoft tablet and saved to Google drive. The rise of SaaS-based services and cloud computing has meant greater integration and cross-platform functionality. Still, patent restrictions on APIs could grind much of that work to a halt – to the detriment of the end user.
In the words of Kent Walker, Google’s chief legal counsel, “open interfaces between programs are the building blocks of many of the services and products we use today, as well as of the technologies we haven't yet imagined. It would, for the first time, grant copyright owners a monopoly power to stymie the creation of new implementations and applications."
The Google versus Oracle case will go before the Supreme Court in March 2020 with a decision coming as early as June.