By: Tom Lee
Yesterday we joined Mozilla, Medium, Patreon, Etsy, and Wikimedia in an amicus brief supporting Google’s petition to the Supreme Court in the Oracle v. Google case. Although our role here is small, this case is huge, scary, and important, with potentially disastrous consequences for the US software industry. We want to take a moment to explain why this case concerns us, and why we think it should worry you, too.
Oracle v. Google began in 2010. In 2005 Google chose to adapt the Java platform, which at the time was owned by Sun Microsystems, for mobile devices as part of its Android platform. Google approached Sun for a license to Java, but they couldn’t work out a deal (Google says this was about the ability to open source it, not money). Instead, Google wrote its own version, which launched in 2007. At first, Sun supported the move, but when Sun was purchased by Oracle in 2009, Oracle decided to sue Google.
The biggest question at issue is whether application programming interfaces (APIs) are copyrightable. Google’s and Oracle’s Java implementations are built with different code, but the interfaces by which you call that code are the same.
In the brief we’re joining, APIs are analogous to the shipping info form you fill out during an online checkout process. If APIs are private property that can’t be copied without permission, it would be as if no two checkout systems could use the same form field labels. Everyone would have to find their own way of saying “address” and “city” or buy a license or risk getting sued. Even this understates just how radical an idea asserting copyright in APIs is. Having a standardized interface is what makes interoperability possible. In any modern computer this is true — and essential — for a vast collection of technologies, stretching far beyond Java.
This case has been going on for almost a decade, so it has a pretty circuitous history:
- 2012: Judge Alsup rules that APIs are not copyrightable. Oracle appeals.
- 2014: The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals reverses Alsup’s decision. It finds that APIs can be copyrightable, but it also says Google might still have a fair use defense, which a jury will have to decide. Google asks SCOTUS to intervene.
- 2015: SCOTUS says no.
- 2016: A jury says Google’s fair use defense is legit. Oracle appeals.
- 2018: The Federal Circuit sides with Oracle again, throwing out the jury verdict. At this point, people are starting to freak out. Google files for rehearing by the full Federal Circuit but is shot down.
- 2019: Google asks SCOTUS to review both Federal Circuit decisions.
That brings us to now. This particular motion is asking the Supreme Court to grant certiorari or “cert”, which just means “agree to review the lower court’s decision.” Amicus briefs are one of the few ways that entities who aren’t parties to a case can add their voices. You can read the brief here.
We don’t know what will happen if Google loses this one. The way software is written could change radically and for the worse. At the very least, Mapbox and anyone who writes code will find themselves in an uncertain legal environment — a situation that could persist for years as courts pick apart the mess. That wouldn’t be good for anyone.
We’ve decided to add our name to this amicus brief because we think it’s important for the Court to hear why the Federal Circuit’s decision is terrible not just for a large software company like Google but also for startups and innovation. The ability to reuse and reimplement APIs isn’t just important to developers — it’s a crucial path for small companies to challenge incumbents, which is essential for technological progress and competition. We’re proud to add our voice to the chorus of companies, advocates and academics urging the Supreme Court to hear this case.
Tom works with Mapbox’s data team to open geodata for our users and the entire world. With a background in open data…www.mapbox.com
We are a location data platform, changing the way people explore the world.
Points of interest
The official Mapbox blog