Google vs. Oracle: No Takesie Backsies

Larry Ellison's plan to destroy open source came up (just) short

The world of open source software is based on one truth above all.

No takesie-backsies.

Once code goes open source it doesn’t go back. You can create a new version, create a new license around it, and sell that. But the old code remains free to see, free to fix, and free to change.

Oracle hates open source with a passion. Nothing else represents such an existential threat. Oracle’s business model is based on charging high and rising prices for its database software. If someone could create an alternative that was free, Oracle couldn’t exist.

So, Oracle took direct action. It bought Sun Microsystems, at the time a primary supporter of open source, in 2010 and closed its projects’ source code. The Sun Solaris operating system didn’t survive. The Open Office code base was eventually forked but isn’t a big factor in the market. The big get was Java, originally created as a “write once, run anywhere” environment but, by 2010, a primary language for servers.

Oracle closed the code by declaring that the Application Program Interfaces (APIs), the instructions showing how the code worked, could be copyrighted. To Oracle, this now meant that any code whose creation relied on those APIs belonged to Oracle.

This is bullshit.

Google ignored the warning of Google’s purchase and used Java APIs to create Android, its mobile operating system. Oracle sued, claiming its copyright on the APIs meant Google was stealing Java to create Android. The fight lasted 10 years.

Finally, today, Google won. The score was 6-2. Justice Amy Barrett hadn’t been in on the original argument. Justice Breyer wrote the decision. Justices Thomas and Alito dissented.

Breyer’s decision was sweeping and ran to 43 pages. But the Thomas dissent was both ignorant and dangerous.

In it, he calls the instructions code, no different than the program code. Since the copyright passed from Sun to Oracle on the purchase, he wrote, Oracle could declare the APIs property and thus keep others from changing, or “forking” the code. This runs counter to how computer code is created and used.

From this, Thomas goes on to claim that Google “decimated” Oracle’s copyright. His view would make all open source subject to monopoly rents, declaring instructions property even while the code itself remained free. You can have the code, but if you want to know how it works you pay, and I get to control the result. That’s not open source. That’s closed source.

Fortunately, today’s software industry doesn’t rely on companies like Sun, thanks to the suit and the possibility Oracle might have won. Software companies no longer write code, declare it open source, and run the group behind it. Today that’s done by foundations like Linux, Apache, and Eclipse, which promise to protect projects from such poaching.

In the end, software found a way around Oracle’s attempt to close open source. But it was a close-run thing.