Why Oracle Might Doom Software as We Know ItYesterday, the Internet was alight with the latest news from the Oracle vs. Google lawsuit. If you haven’t heard, Oracle is accusing Google of breaching copyright and using components of its Java programming language and APIs in Android without appropriate licensing. Yesterday, the jury ruled that Google did in fact breach copyright. Does this spell the end of Android? No. Might it spell bad news for software in the future? Just maybe.

First of all, days before this jury’s ruling, an EU Court judge ruled that programming languages, such as Java, are not copyrightable. Google asserted, then, that the Java Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) that Oracle is accusing Google of duplicating must not be copyrightable either, as they are integral in the Java programming language’s function. During the jury’s deliberation, it was asked to assume that APIs were, in fact, copyrightable — a factor that led to yesterday’s verdict. However, it is now up to the judge to decide if APIs are even copyrightable to begin with, which is the deciding blow in this whole ordeal.

Let’s get another thing straight: Google did not copy the Java source code over for use in Android and call it a day. In fact, a grand total of nine lines out of 15 million (that is, 0.000006%) were examined to be copied from Java’s source code to which, as reported by Oracle’s own experts, had attributed no damage value. So when Oracle’s lead legal counsel David Boies mentioned “infinger’s profits” for those nine lines of code, Judge Alsup said that such a demand “borders on the ridiculous.”

So Oracle has accused Google of breaching copyright on the “structure, sequence, and organization” of the Java APIs. If Oracle were to win this particular suit and the decision that such properties of APIs were copyrightable and made a precedent, it might just spell the end of software as we know it. Particularly open source software.

There are many software projects available nowadays that attempt to emulate proprietary frameworks and binaries so that the open source realm can remain free and unrestricted. Projects like Mono (open source .NET implementation) and WINE (a Windows compatibility layer for Linux and other systems) come to mind. If the judge were to decide that the mere structure of APIs were copyrightable material, companies like Microsoft (which happens to develop the proprietary counterparts of both Mono and WINE) might have the means to be able to shut down and punish those who try to use free software. Since Mono basically re-implements the .NET framework, and WINE re-implements various Windows system components on other operating systems, Microsoft could possibly claim that these projects are infringing on the proprietary designs. These being open source projects with little in way of revenue, the action Microsoft would most likely take would be to halt the projects’ development entirely.

Such an event would have huge implications for free software. While I and others who enjoy free software try to stick to more “native” solutions (rather than re-implementations), sometimes those re-implementations are necessary to use our computers effectively and enjoyably.

More than just compatibility projects, there are plenty of other projects that attempt to promote interoperability between systems. Take the Samba project for example, which enables Linux devices to communicate with Windows networks. If Microsoft was having a bad day, it might decide to declare that the Samba project is infringing on the protocol used in Windows, perhaps even going as far as to demand an injunction against the Samba project, effectively killing a familiar transport mechanism between free systems and Windows systems.

What’s more, many more lawsuits might break out between companies, battling over silly little things like the way functions are organized in a library or perhaps even what the functions are named. Lawyers would essentially gain control of software development, rather than the engineers who simply want to design and create something that will make others’ lives easier.

Now, I leave you with a more relieving outlook from Groklaw:

Don’t let anyone fool you. Today was a major victory for Google. That’s why after the jury left, our reporter says that Google’s table was laughing, and Oracle’s mighty glum. And I see some journalists are surprised or confused, because they have been listening to a steady flow of Oracle FUD from the wrong people. Remember the headlines about this being a $6 billion case? It never was and now it never will be. Not what you were told to expect, is it? Live and learn, y’all. Live and learn. If a person is paid by Oracle, why would you take it as necessarily so?

CC licensed Flickr photo above by mrbill