Apr 6, 2021 - Technology

Oracle vs. Google was a software fight for the ages

Animated illustration of a justice scale weighing the Google and Oracle logos
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The epic legal fight between Oracle and Google took place in the technical trenches, but it captured Silicon Valley's imagination because it dramatized deep tensions that the software industry has never resolved.

The big picture: A software program is a machine that's written. Because of that, software has always held a precarious position within the legal system.

  • Sometimes it seems to fall under the copyright rules that govern creative work.
  • Sometimes it seems better suited for the patent system that covers inventions.
  • Sometimes it doesn't seem to fit any legal regime at all.

Flashback: The story of the software industry is one of perpetual tension between coders' instinct to share and collaborate and their (and their employers') desire to profit from a product that costs nothing to copy.

  • Before the 1970s nearly all software was custom-made for specific systems and often shared for free.
  • The rise of personal computing brought an explosion of small startups selling software in shrink-wrapped physical packages and controlling it with licenses. Some of these companies — Microsoft first and foremost — became wealthy giants in the process.
  • But the culture of software sharing carried on at universities. By the late '90s, the arrival of the Web enabled new kinds of large-scale collaboration under a new label — "open source," which came with its own licenses designed not to produce profit but to insure different levels of freedom and reusability.
  • Open-source code and tools in the hands of programmers at companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook made possible much of today's software wealth in an industry that's increasingly built around selling services or ads instead of licenses.

Be smart: Computer programs don't break neatly into two simple categories like "open" and "closed" or "free" and "proprietary." They fall along a spectrum between extremes (with, say, the Linux operating system at one end and business software like Oracle's at the other).

Most of the software we all use lands somewhere in the middle.

  • Most products are dependent on open-source systems and code (like the internet itself) for some aspects of their functioning and try to provide some extra value and maybe make some money by adding cool new ideas at the edges.

The programming language at the center of the Oracle-Google fight, Java, is a perfect example.

  • It was conceived at Sun Microsystems in the '90s as a "write once, run anywhere" platform that would relieve programmers of the labor of rewriting each program for every new system that came along.
  • Sun kept the rights to Java's code but gave it away free. In the late 2000s, it released the whole thing under open source license.
  • Then Oracle bought up Sun, and soon after launched its crusade against Google.

The complexity of this spectrum is probably what led the Supreme Court justices wisely away from a definitive ruling that could upset the industry's equilibrium.

  • Instead of deciding that APIs can or can't be copyrighted, the court just said that what Google did was okay because it was a "fair use" of Java code.

Our thought bubble: Successful software companies are among the most profitable in history, and neither Oracle nor Google has much grounds for complaint.

The bottom line: Software makers are going to keep finding ways to work together even as they seek competitive advantage. That's what APIs are all about.

As Walter Isaacson once put it: "Innovation is most vibrant in the realms where open-source systems compete with proprietary ones."

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