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Oracle Vs. Google And A New Kind of Patent Troll
This is a guest post written by Oren Michels.
Oren Michels is CEO and Co-founder of Mashery, a firm working with over 150 leading brands to power over 45,000 apps created by 135,000 developers. You can follow him on Twitter @michels.
It is well-known that big tech companies are spending billions amassing patent portfolios and wielding them as competitive weapons against each other and their smaller challengers.
What is new and different about Oracle’s lawsuit against Google is that it is not about whether someone can enforce a patent on a process or feature, like Amazon’s one-click patent or the many user interface patents Apple and others have been granted. Instead, Oracle is making a copyright claim on the APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) used to communicate with the Java programming language.
Oracle has reiterated that the Java language itself is free and open source (as Sun declared it to be years ago). So the question of how Oracle can profit from the success of Android and the role of Java in that success now hinges on whether one can assert a copyright on an API.
I won’t rehash the history of the case or the specific arguments – there are plenty of great articles on the subject.
The arguments boil down to whether it is possible to “own” the language that is being used (as Oracle and Larry Ellison want it to be), or only the words that have been written in that language (as has been the traditional interpretation of copyright law until this case – an interpretation that has paved the way for decades of innovation in software and applications).
An API is a specification of the dialect that computer programs or their components use to exchange data with each other or with the hardware they are running on. One program uses an API to tell another program “ask for this, and you will get this in return.” APIs govern how an app running on your phone’s processor talks to the keyboard or the screen, or how the USA Today app on your iPad gets the updated headlines, story and pictures from the server. They are essential to the operation of any “cloud” implementation, since without a means to communicate and collaborate a processor in the cloud would have no way to receive and send the programs and data it’s processing.
Six years ago I co-founded Mashery to build a platform that allows large and small businesses to create APIs to extend the distribution of whatever product or service they sell to new customers, and to allow any of their customers to interact with them wherever they want to. As we enter the post-website era, we are all increasingly accessing services from a broad range of connected devices – mobile devices, appliances, TVs, game consoles, you name it.
A well-defined API makes this interchange easy enough that APIs have been the connective data tissue for many of the last decade’s game-changing innovations in banking, travel, entertainment and media. APIs allow new apps or interfaces to be developed, tested and deployed with great speed and low cost. A properly managed API includes the capability to limit which users or programs have access to certain data, so third parties can access valuable data or copyrighted content, but the most sensitive data can be protected from unauthorized use. In general, API management involves implementing and enforcing a whole set of rules governing who has access to what, and in how much quantity.
But other than a potential payday for Oracle on this particular case, no one benefits from a world in which the description of how you transfer data is copyrightable.
It would be as if someone held the copyright to the design of the prongs on the electrical outlet – two small parallel blades and a roundish ground connector. Sure, someone came up with it. But its value lies in its ubiquitous usage. Put a tax on its use, and the market will evolve to a design that does not carry the tax.
After all, anyone who travels internationally knows that there are dozens of plug designs that accomplish the same basic function: delivery of electricity to a power cord. Though some fans have been known to wax patriotic about the superiority of their country’s design.
We’re already seeing the effects of the avalanche of litigation around software and business process patents that’s currently stifling innovation in the software industry. It creates complexity that limits the ability of innovators to build useful functionality into their products, and it has diverted billions of dollars away from product innovation towards companies’ amassing “patent war chests” and engaging in litigation.
This is clearly a contentious issue in the tech world, and one that has many people pleading for patent reform. Adding API copyright uncertainty only complicates solving the patent problem.
For now, it appears that the API Copyright Troll concept is limited to the particular case of Java, software created corporate owners (Sun) who chose to make it free and open source, but was then purchased by a company (Oracle) that has had enormous success in selling licenses and services for the software it developed. Oracle clearly recognizes the value of owning something as ubiquitous as Java, but is frustrated by its inability to profit from it.
I hope it stays limited.