News: Oracle v. Google — Why Is This Important?

On the 9th of May, 2014, something happened in the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit that could have massive ramifications for our fledgling cloud orchestration industry. Circuit judges with no knowledge about the software industry and how that industry works made a judgement that could pull the rug out from under the whole integration and orchestration industry. “What!” you say?

On May 9th, three judges of the Federal Appeals Court ruled on a 2012 case between Google and Oracle regarding the use of application programming interfaces (APIs) to access Java. Now, this post is not a standard tech post, but it may be quite heavy in parts as I attempt to explain this decision and its ramifications.

But first, a bit of history surrounding this appeal. In 2012, a US District Judge (High Court Judge for those in the UK—remember, this is a civil case) ordered Oracle to reimburse Google to the tune of $1M for costs incurred during their patent argument. In that case, Oracle argued that Google had infringed on its patents (which Oracle received with the acquisition of Sun Microsystems) in Google’s development of the Android phone and tablet OS. At the time, Oracle announced its intent to appeal the judgement. The root of this argument concerns Java and the use of application programming interfaces (APIs). I have to admit that this term will mean more to most of you than to me, as I have trouble creating “Hello World” in any programing language.

Traditionally, the use of APIs has been governed by what is termed “fair use.” Definition time: “fair use” is a distinct legal term and is actually a doctrine rather than a statute. (A doctrine is a legal framework built up via the use of legal judgement and is part of the English legal system of case law.)

Fair use is a legal doctrine that allows the reproduction of copyrighted material for certain purposes without obtaining permission and, more importantly, without paying a fee or royalty. It has its roots in traditional publishing, as can be seen from the more common applications, which generally include reviews, news reporting, teaching, and scholarly research. But with the advent of digital technology and the Internet, fair use has sometimes been applied to the redistribution of musical works, photographs, videos, and computer programs. This is a very grey and murky area; quite a few band-aids and splints have been used to shoehorn this doctrine into the modern digital world.

OK, so now we know that this case has been decided by three judges based on the legal argument of the defense and plaintiff’s counsel. This means that the whole of the API industry has just been put in turmoil by three legal minds who, by their own admission, have no real understanding of the software industry. The fallout could be huge.

Firstly, Oracle has won a position whereby it is no longer royalty free for other companies to utilize Java APIs to manipulate an environment from their code. Short-term “Yay” for Oracle lawyers—more money for Larry’s next private jet. In the long term, the industry will find a way to manoeuvre around this latest obstruction, replacing Java APIs with “another language.”

The more worrying fallout of this decision is how other vendors might view it. Under this ruling, it appears that they are legally allowed to charge for their APIs. Considering that this is what the whole orchestration industry relies on in order for application A to communicate with vendors B and C with a common look and feel, app writers will be left with two choices: either increase the cost of their solutions to cover the additional cost of API royalties, or reverse engineer every vendor’s software development kit (SDK) to write their own interfaces into the environments they are attempting to orchestrate, thereby opening the door to yet more lawyer feasting.

To date, no other vendor has openly commented on the potential fallout of this case, but as you can see, the ramifications could be catastrophic.

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