Oct 8, 2020 - Technology

Oracle's disconnect on remix culture

Illustration of the Oracle logo
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The most important Supreme Court case in modern Silicon Valley history came to oral arguments on Wednesday.

Why it matters: Oracle is suing Google for writing some specialized code, known as an API, which allowed developers to code in Oracle's Java programming language when building Android apps. Oracle claims copyright on Java APIs, and wants $9 billion in damages.

  • The cognitive disconnect comes from the fact that Oracle is simultaneously trying to spend billions of dollars in an attempt to align itself with the business model of TikTok, which is entirely based on reusing copyrighted material without payment to the rights holders.

Background: There's no doubt where Silicon Valley stands with regard to the Supreme Court case — and it's not with Oracle. Just one amicus brief was signed by just about every living software-engineering legend in the Valley, and other companies like Microsoft, IBM and Mozilla have also sided with Google.

  • The Supreme Court is not tech Twitter, however, and the outcome could easily go Oracle's way.

Be smart: The APIs in question were written by Sun Microsystems, an engineering-led Silicon Valley company that respected remix culture and interoperability and would never have sued Google like this. But then Sun was bought by Oracle, and the Sun culture changed.

  • TikTok is the essence of remix culture — a place where dance routines and snippets of music get reimagined by millions of users. The music copyright holders, like Sun Microsystems, might not love the fact that they aren't being directly paid for that use, but they know that when other companies help them turn up in new contexts, they ultimately make more money.

The bottom line: Culture matters, and it's hard to see how TikTok can coexist over the long term alongside a litigious sales organization like Oracle. Maybe that explains why Oracle, unlike Walmart, isn't seeking a board seat at TikTok.

Go deeper: In Google/Oracle case, Supreme Court will weigh software's future

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