Sign up for our daily briefing

Make your busy days simpler with Axios AM/PM. Catch up on what's new and why it matters in just 5 minutes.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Catch up on the day's biggest business stories

Subscribe to Axios Closer for insights into the day’s business news and trends and why they matter

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Sign up for Axios Pro Rata

Dive into the world of dealmakers across VC, PE and M&A with Axios Pro Rata. Delivered daily to your inbox by Dan Primack and Kia Kokalitcheva.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Sports news worthy of your time

Binge on the stats and stories that drive the sports world with Axios Sports. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Tech news worthy of your time

Get our smart take on technology from the Valley and D.C. with Axios Login. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Get the inside stories

Get an insider's guide to the new White House with Axios Sneak Peek. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Denver news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Denver

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Des Moines news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Des Moines

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Twin Cities news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Twin Cities

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Tampa Bay news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Tampa Bay

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Charlotte news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Charlotte

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Nashville news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with the Axios Nashville newsletter.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Columbus news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with the Axios Columbus newsletter.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Dallas news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with the Axios Dallas newsletter.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Austin news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with the Axios Austin newsletter.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Atlanta news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with the Axios Atlanta newsletter.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Philadelphia news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with the Axios Philadelphia newsletter.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Chicago news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with the Axios Chicago newsletter.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Sign up for Axios NW Arkansas

Stay up-to-date on the most important and interesting stories affecting NW Arkansas, authored by local reporters

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top DC news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with the Axios DC newsletter.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

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."

Go deeper

Apr 5, 2021 - Technology

Supreme Court sides with Google in long-running copyright dispute with Oracle

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The Supreme Court handed Google a major victory on Monday, marking an end to a bitter battle between two tech giants over the use of software and copyrights.

Driving the news: The Supreme Court ruled 6-2 Monday in favor of Google in its long-running copyright dispute with Oracle.

Job gains slow sharply as U.S. adds 210k jobs in November

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The U.S. economy added 210,000 jobs in November, while the unemployment rate plummeted to 4.2% from 4.6%.

Why it matters: Job gains slowed sharply, but the labor market recovery remains on track.

Elon Musk's mega-billion bounty

Photo: Patrick Pleul/picture alliance via Getty Images

Here's how insanely rich Elon Musk is: He has unloaded $10 billion of his stock in the past month — and could do that 15+ more times given his silos of shares.