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Oracle's victory over Google Android could kill the software industry

This is no way to achieve interoperability
Fri May 30 2014, 12:09
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EVERYTHING you've ever coded could now be in breach of US law. However melodramatic that sounds, it's chillingly accurate.

The recent ruling clearing Oracle to pursue Google for lines of its Java code hidden at the heart of its all-conquering Android mobile operating system spells big trouble for every software developer who has ever relied upon supposedly open-source code in their own software.

The recent appeal overturned a 2012 ruling in favour of Google's right to the use of open-source code. As a result, Oracle is now free to chase Google over royalties for the billions of devices around the world that work because the Java APIs, which the web firm assumed were open source, are now considered protected under copyright.

Although there is bound to be more legal wrangling before the decision becomes final, the precedent set by the case should send a cold shiver down the spine of every developer who has ever taken advantage of the swathes of open-source code available as software interface APIs.

Oracle's successful argument is that while you are welcome to use its code, the APIs, the interfaces that allow it to function with your own, are subject to copyright. Therefore, if anything worth pursuing comes of your own coding project, Oracle owns a slice.

Oracle argues that an API is more than just a functional piece of code devoid of creativity and therefore is copyrightable as is, and therefore anyone using the code to their own ends is infringing the database firm's copyright.

Simply put, the ruling sets the precedent that you are welcome to use the open-source code, it's free, but you have to pay to access it in the first place. It's a little bit like going to a lending library, but being charged a hefty rental fee to borrow a book.

Google's response showed it isn't ready to roll over yet. It said, "We're disappointed by this ruling, which sets a damaging precedent for computer science and software development, and are considering our options."

Indeed Google's options include requesting that the appeal be reconsidered by the entire appeals court instead of the three judge panel that overturned the original ruling. Google also has the eventual option of seeking an appeal to the US Supreme Court.

As things stand, the next hearing will be on remand back to the US District Court to decide if Google's embedding of Java code is warranted as Fair Use, or whether damages and royalties, which might be considerable, are payable to Oracle.

Even if Google's use of the Java APIs in Android is found to be Fair Use, the demands made by Oracle could still impact innovation across the software development industry. Many of the best ideas come from bedroom developers taking advantage of open-source APIs. Now those same developers might not be able to use those same lines of code without a team of lawyers on standby.

But it's worse than that. In the IT industry, everything connects. If Oracle's lawyers can establish that the Java APIs are protected by copyright, then so can anyone's lawyers. If you wanted to find a holiday destination, find out the weather, book a rental car, renew your passport and learn some basic phrases, you could be interfacing with 15 to 20 APIs. If each of the copyright holders decides to charge for or forbid access to those APIs, then nothing will work. The whole software industry - indeed the whole internet - will fail.

The fundamentals here are simple - either something is open source, or it isn't. Oracle seems to be trolling for reparations over code that it didn't even develop, but rather bought via its acquisition of Sun Microsystems, merely because there is opportunity, and that goes against the very spirit of open source. Because the appeals court judges that wrote the ruling failed to understand the repercussions of what they've done, it could decimate the IT industry if left to stand. µ

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