The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) asked the Obama administration an opinion about the case of Oracle vs. Google in the case which for years has seen the two giants in a lawsuit about the use of the Java language in Android. The dispute began in 2010 after Oracle bought Sun, the company that developed Java, and claimed that Google violates copyright and patents related to Java. This isn’t one of the many clashes between companies regarding software patents but a special case where the final decision may have a significant influence on the future of software development.
The Android operating system is based on the Linux kernel but widely uses the Java language as a basis for its applications. Instead of using the Java virtual machine, Google included an implementation of some of the APIs, which in very simple words are the procedures available to the programmer, of the Java Standard Edition Platform.
Google already looked to reach an agreement with Sun for a partnership or at least to regulate the use of Java in Android but nothing came of it. After the acquisition of Sun by Oracle, there were other contacts but not only there was no agreement but Oracle brought Google to court.
In 2012, a district court decided in favor of Google stating that there could be no copyright on the APIs. Instead, in 2013 an appeals court overturned the decision, but leaving open the decision concerning Google’s fair use. In October 2014, Google turned to the Supreme Court, which now has requested an opinion to the Obama administration, and in particular to the Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., the person who has the task of representing the federal government before the Supreme Court.
On the issue of copyright on the APIs, already in 2012 the Electronic Frontier Foundation had expressed its opinion. The organization that defends the rights of people in the digital world pointed out the negative consequences that would result if it were possible to have the copyright on software APIs. Having control over them would give the possibility to decide who can create a program that is compatible and can work with another.
It may seem like just a technical issue but the implications are really significant. Many programs and platforms, also on the Internet, have APIs that can allow third parties to interact with them. Think about Firefox or Twitter, which give the chance to anyone to write programs that interact with them. Controlling who can do that would limit competition and in these cases the consequences are always negative.
At this point, we have to wait first of all if the Obama administration will decide to express an opinion and if so, when it will do it and what it will be. There’s no deadline to meet and it might take some time because the consequences of the final decision on this case are really important.