Oracle v. Google and the future of software development

January 24th, 2019

Today we asked the Supreme Court of the United States to review our long-running copyright dispute with Oracle over the use of software interfaces. The outcome will have a far-reaching impact on innovation across the computer industry.

Standardized software interfaces have driven innovation in software development. They let computer programs interact with each other and let developers easily build technologies for different platforms. Unless the Supreme Court steps in here, the industry will be hamstrung by court decisions finding that the use of software interfaces in creating new programs is not allowed under copyright law.

With smartphone apps now common, we sometimes forget how hard it once was for developers to build apps across a wide range of different platforms. Our 2008 release of the open-source Android platform changed the game. It helped developers overcome the challenges of smaller processors, limited memory, and short battery life, while providing innovative features and functionality for smartphone development. The result was a win for everyone: Developers could build new apps, manufacturers could build great new devices, and the resulting competition gave consumers both lower prices and an extraordinary range of choice.

We built Android following the computer industry’s long-accepted practice of re-using software interfaces, which provide sets of commands that make it easy to implement common functionality—in the same way that computer keyboard short-cuts like pressing “control” and “p” make it easy to print. Android created a transformative new platform, while letting millions of Java programmers use their existing skills to create new applications. And the creators of Java backed the release of Android, saying that it had “strapped another set of rockets to the [Java] community’s momentum.”

But after it acquired Java in 2010, Oracle sued us for using these software interfaces, trying to profit by changing the rules of software development after the fact. Oracle’s lawsuit claims the right to control software interfaces—the building blocks of software development—and as a result, the ability to lock in a community of developers who have invested in learning the free and open Java language.

A court initially ruled that the software interfaces, in this case, are not copyrightable, but that decision was overruled. A unanimous jury then held that our use of the interfaces was a legal fair use, but that decision was likewise overruled. Unless the Supreme Court corrects these twin reversals, this case will end developers’ traditional ability to freely use existing software interfaces to build new generations of computer programs for consumers. Just like we all learn to use computer keyboard shortcuts, developers have learned to use the many standard interfaces associated with different programming languages. Letting these reversals stand would effectively lock developers into the platform of a single copyright holder—akin to saying that keyboard shortcuts can work with only one type of computer.

The U.S. Constitution authorized copyrights to “promote the progress of science and useful arts,” not to impede creativity or promote lock-in of software platforms. Leading voices from business, technology, academia, and the nonprofit sector agree and have spoken out about the potentially devastating impacts of this case.

We support software developers’ ability to develop the applications we all have come to use every day, and we hope that the Supreme Court will give this case the serious and careful consideration it deserves.