GOOGLE COURT VICTORY IS LIKE HIP-HOP MUSIC TO SOFTWARE DEVELOPERS' EARS

by Leif Swedlow

On May 26, 2016, a jury verdict was reached that defeated Oracle's copyright lawsuit against Google concerning a collection of API (Application Programming Interface) software components - software that helps other bits of software work together in a unified way.  In non-Geek-speak, Oracle claimed that when Google created the Android operating system for smartphones, its programmers literally "copied" thousands of lines of the JAVA API library, in which Oracle (in an earlier appeal in the same case) established that it owns copyright. 

Google's defense to having integrated 37 API components into the Android operating system was that it was fairly using common building blocks that Oracle itself had, up until recently, freely let everyone use in creating their own software.  Google submitted that in addition to literally re-writing these components, to the extent they were essentially identical to the original JAVA source, Google's work had transformed them into something new and different.  The argument that what Google did was a fair and acceptable form of "borrowing" in order to innovate beat the argument that it had merely "copied" these software-building tools without permission.

More details about the case can be read at ARS TECHNICA ... and many other places.

Why is the Oracle v. Google API case like Hip-Hop music?

"Sampling" has been a well-litigated area of music copyright law, and the cases on the topic have resulted in a well-established system that allows artists to borrow small bits of other artists' work to make something creatively new - a transformative work - as long as the owner of the sampled work provides permission.  The Oracle v. Google case advances that idea into the field of software development, where state-of-the-art programming systems use modular libraries of virtual building-blocks that each perform small functions, but when laced together create sophisticated applications or, in Android's case, operating systems. 

An important issue in the Oracle v. Google trial was whether Oracle had been permissive about the use of JAVA.  The jury appears to have accepted Google's view that Oracle had indeed encouraged the widespread use of the JAVA API, up to the point that Oracle's leadership started seeing Android as a competitive threat.  The problem with Oracle's change of heart: Once permission to sample has been freely given, it cannot be rescinded, even if the new song turns out to be an even bigger hit than the original.

For more information on copyright law, please contact Leif Swedlow at 272-9241 or leswedlow@andrewsdavis.com.


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