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Is Google’s Software Development Common Practice for Technical Progress or Plagiarism?

Written By: Allen L. Williams II

A decade long feud over copyright infringement between Oracle and Google has brought focus to the issue of copyright protections for the code used to create software interfaces and their structures . Oracle sued Google for $8 billion dollars, accusing Google of “an egregious act of plagiarism,” taking the case all the way to the Supreme Court. [1] As an issue of first impression, the Supreme Court will decide whether copyright protection extends to the code and structure for a type of software interface, application programming interfaces (“APIs”), and whether petitioners’ actions constitute “fair use” of Oracle’s API in the context of creating a new computer program. [2] While Oracle alleges that Google copied more than 11,000 lines of Oracle’s Java code, as well as the organizational structure of the API, Google contends that the portions it used are fair use, in conjunction with the lower court’s findings. [3]

This case has brought focus to the fact that software interfaces and copyrights not only affect large technology companies like Google and Oracle, but also broadly affect individual and independent entities like the concerns of songwriters, authors, photographers, and filmmakers.[4] Copywriting code used to develop software interfaces is essential to individual, independent, and smaller businesses because it protects individual ideas from being stolen by larger companies . While on a larger scale, copyright protections can stop these larger companies from being able to use their power, money, and influence to take part of someone else’s idea in the process of creating their own ideas, there are consumers, developers, and businesspeople who need open-source software interfaces to remain unmonopolized.

Partisanship in the United States has come into full effect as the Trump Administration has supported Oracle in this case by filing an amicus brief to the Supreme Court. The Department of Justice is urging the Supreme Court to rule in favor of Oracle, alleging Google has violated copyright law and that Oracle holds a valid copyright. [5] With congressional Republican support on its side, Oracle has great backing in this case from the executive and legislative branches, which seems to give Oracle the upper hand. Where should the line be drawn between the restrictions on the use of one’s copywritten ideas and the market’s needs to progress API technology to keep up with the growing digital age?

Google spokesperson Joe Castaneda contends, “A remarkable range of consumers, developers, computer scientists, and businesses agree that open software interfaces promote innovation and that no single company should be able to monopolize creativity by blocking software tools from working together.” [6] If Oracle wins this case, this could potentially transform software interfaces and restrict technology from advancement. This case is crucial for software engineers because most modern software development best practices are built around the reimplementation of APIs. [7] A decision in favor of Oracle could place current API creators at the top of the technological food chain in terms of software development and force all others who wish to engineer new and improved software to acquire Java licensing from any of them that have valid copyrights. With most companies likely unwilling to acquire API licensing, companies may change their API’s to simply not include other companies’ codes, in accordance with copyright law, which will cause a surplus of compatibility and cross compatibility issues that the average consumer would be forced to deal with. [8] Overall, upon the decision of this case, software engineering, coding development, and software interfaces will be forever affected. Only time and strong advocacy from both sides will tell where the line will be drawn. Until a decision has been reached on the case at bar, the battle to protect copyright in software engineering and arguments for open software interfaces remain in a cloudy mist of uncertainty.

[1] Google, Oracle Meet in Copyright Clash at Supreme Court, INDEPENDENT (Oct. 7, 2020, 5:10 PM),
https://www.independent.co.uk/news/google-oracle-meet-in-copyright-clash-at-supreme-court-oracle-speech-billions-supreme-court-practice-b852199.html [https://perma.cc/DRS9-CYA9]

[2] Google LLC v. Oracle America Inc., SCOTUSBLOG (Oct.7, 2020, 10:00am),
https://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/google-llc-v-oracle-america-inc/ [https://perma.cc/L93E-V267]

[3] Sandra Aistars, High Court Oracle-Google Copyright War May Benefit Artists, LAW360 (Oct. 8, 2020, 4:38 PM),
https://www.law360.com/articles/1318139/high-court-oracle-google-copyright-war-may-benefit-artists [https://perma.cc/XL6U-UTVB]

[4] Id.

[5] Emily Birnbaum, Trump Administration Backs Oracle in Supreme Court Battle Against Google, THE HILL, (Feb. 19, 2020, 6:27 PM),
https://thehill.com/policy/technology/483750-trump-administration-backs-oracle-in-supreme-court-battle-against-google [https://perma.cc/HKS2-ZGTC]

[6] Id.

[7] Hanna Valtonen, How Oracle v. Google Could Upend Software Development, INFOWORLD (Oct. 7, 2020, 3:00 AM),
https://www.infoworld.com/article/3575359/how-oracle-v-google-could-upend-software-development.html [https://perma.cc/3SQL-PEJJ]

[8] Id.

 

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