I’m not sure that either Google or Oracle was the good guy in the Java patent/copyright case. But Google was less bad. And it’s hard for me to see how ruling in favor of Oracle could have done anything good for the industry.
The question here was whether you could copyright an API. The problem with this is that APIs have been cloned in the past. If Google infringed on Oracle’s copyrights by cloning Java’s APIs, then that means the WINE project, which allows certain Windows programs to run under Unix and Unix-like operating systems, infringes on Windows copyrights. Because what WINE does is look at the APIs that the Windows programs will try to access, then implements them so that a Unix system would respond in a comparable way.
It helps to think of APIs like recipes. And what Google did wasn’t to copy Oracle’s recipe. Google took the finished product and figured out how to make something that was comparable enough for its purposes–just like I can find recipes on the Internet for something comparable to a Gino’s East pizza. It’s not exact, but when the alternative is driving five hours to Chicago, it’s probably close enough.
I was afraid that Judge William Alsup would rule that APIs are copyrightable, in which case, WINE would infringe on Windows copyrights. And for that matter, it’s possible that Windows and Mac OS X might infringe on one another because certain elements of their APIs might be similar enough. What the world doesn’t need is that particular round of copyright battles and licensing.
A little background: Google considered just licensing Java from Sun, the company that invented Java and owned it at the time. That deal fell through, so Google cloned the pieces of Java that it needed instead–approximately 22 percent of it–and built Android around it. In doing so, Google saved money, and probably improved the performance of early Android devices.
And Sun never had a problem with companies doing things like that. Sun sued Microsoft over its implementation of Java, but because they tried to make an incompatible version of Java an industry standard. Sun won, and Microsoft stopped distributing its incompatible Java tools. But at one point IBM had more Java products on the market than Sun, and Sun had no problem with that, because IBM made its products completely compatible with Sun’s.
Arguably, Sun pouring resources into things like Java–which is computer science for the sake of computer science–is why Sun is now a division of Oracle. Then again, Google does things like that too, but somehow Google manages to make a lot of money. Since the dot-com bust, Sun wasn’t very good at that. Oracle, on the other hand, is extremely profit-driven. That’s why they’re one of the largest software companies in the world.
And I think that’s why Oracle sued Google. They thought it was worth taking a chance. And while it would have been bad for the industry, Oracle does what’s best for Oracle.