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Supreme Court Strikes A Blow For Open
April 22, 2021 | Robert Bergman
The U.S. Supreme court’s recent decision to allow Google to use 11,500 lines of a copyrighted Oracle Java SE applications programming interface (API) code without permission stands as an out-and-out endorsement for open technology. The Court did not rule on whether computer programs can be copyrighted, an issue they may take up later, but only on whether the circumstances under which copyrighted materials can be used without permission.
Oracle became owner of the Java programming language when it acquired Sun Microsystems in 2010. Like many programming languages, Java allows developers to prewrite small subprograms called “methods,” which programmers string together to build complex programs. Oracle’s business model was to create functionality around these methods and then charge cell phone companies to embed the Java software necessary to run those methods.
Oracle’s Java 2 Platform Standard Edition included a highly organized library of about 30,000 methods. To expand it, Oracle gave developers free access to existing methods and encouraged them to write new programs for the Java platform. In return, developers had to make their programs compatible with the Java platform on any device. They could improve the platform but had to make beneficial modifications public. If they wanted to keep customizations secret, they could do so by paying a license fee.
By 2005, when telecom companies were racing to develop operating systems for what would become today’s smartphones, Oracle’s strategy had successfully encouraged millions of programmers to learn Java and Java platforms were in most mobile phones. Google wanted to attract programmers to build Android applications, which required embedding Java code in its Android phones, for which they would need a license. When negotiations to obtain a license broke down, Google copied 11,500 lines of Oracle’s Java code anyway and then advertised Android phones as containing “Core Java Libraries.” Oracle sued for copyright infringement.
After nine years of deliberation, the Supreme Court ruled for Google. The majority reasoned that because the code enabled only interface with Android platform and was not actually incorporated in new applications, it was fair and in the public interest for them to do so.
“Google copied these lines not because of their creativity or beauty but because they would allow programmers to bring their skills to a new smartphone computing environment,” writes Justice Stephen G. Breyer, writing for the majority, which also included Chief Justice John G. Roberts, and Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Also playing into the decision was that Google’s smartphone operating system is not a market substitute for Java SE and the majority’s belief that that Oracle itself could benefit from the reimplementation of its interface into a different market. Google hailed the decisions as a victory for interoperability.
“The Supreme Court’s clear ruling is a victory for consumers, interoperability and computer science,” said Kent Walker, Google’s senior vice president of global affairs. “The decision gives legal certainty to the next generation of developers whose new products and services will benefit consumers.”
Open for business
Although Oracle certainly did not intend to make the product open, the Court’s treatment of it as such, essentially rendered it a de facto standard and in doing so represents how the highest court in the land currently views the value of open software. Whether it is the public benefit or detriment, as Justice Clarence Thomas writing for the minority believes, the decision sets a precedent and criteria for using copyrighted computer code without permission. This represents a potential opportunity for other, probably less well-capitalized developers and end users to reduce costs and create new software with potentially redeeming qualities.
This interpretation of the value of open software is certainly in keeping with the industry trends. Information Week reports more than 95 percent of IT organizations worldwide now use opensource software for mission-critical IT workloads and cites Gartner predictions that more than 70% of enterprises will increase their IT spending in opensource software through 2025. And they will all be doing it for the purposes the Court supported: to reducing costs, gaining flexibility, and innovating without being hampered by the restrictions of homegrown or third-party commercial alternatives.
For more about open standards in the industrial workplace and how they impact cyber security read: