from the oracle-wrong?-what-a-surprise dept
Readers of this site no doubt know that Oracle’s arguments in its lawsuit against Google, set to be argued in the Supreme Court on Wednesday, could spell disaster for the computer industry, by turning the act of reimplementing an API into copyright infringement. Back in January, I revealed in an Ars Technica piece that it could even spell disaster for Oracle itself, because Oracle’s cloud storage service reimplements Amazon’s S3 API. Oracle did not dispute my findings but shrugged them off, claiming Amazon had granted permission. I was skeptical, but at the time did not have hard evidence to prove a negative that Oracle had no license.
I’ve now found the evidence for why Oracle should be worried. And more importantly, it shows why every tech company and startup should be worried about the Google v. Oracle case.
What Oracle pointed me to in January was an open source Apache license for Amazon’s Java SDK software. This was curious at the time because the SDK doesn’t implement S3 or any other cloud service; it uses the API by calling a handful of its functions. Code that calls an API is distinct from the API itself, so permission to copy API-calling code is not permission to implement an API (assuming, as Oracle does, that you need permission to implement an API). To repurpose a favorite analogy of Oracle’s lawyers, buying the rights to an authorized Harry Potter fanfic does not give one permission to reproduce Chamber of Secrets. Nevertheless, the idea that the SDK license gave Oracle the right to reimplement Amazon’s API continues to circulate among Oracle’s supporters.
The problem is, Amazon itself doesn’t believe it has licensed its cloud API. In 2012, a company called Eucalyptus Systems announced that it had negotiated a license with Amazon to reimplement APIs including S3. Reports of the deal suggest that Amazon was not handing out licenses to just anyone: “Amazon chose to partner with Eucalyptus,” said a representative for the latter company.
The Apache license for the Java SDK has been in place since at least 2010—two years before the Eucalyptus deal. If, as Oracle claims, everyone already had an Apache license to reimplement the S3 API, then there was no reason for Amazon to negotiate out an individual license with Eucalyptus, and there was no reason for Eucalyptus to promote its success in obtaining that license.
In 2014, Eucalyptus was acquired by HP, which raised the question of whether the acquired firm’s API license would transfer. In reporting on the acquisition, one journalist (who apparently now works for Oracle) quoted an anonymous cloud service vendor who described Amazon as “anything but generous on API licensing.” Again, that would make no sense if Amazon had Apache-licensed reimplementation of its APIs in 2010.
Notably, Amazon’s licensing behavior doesn’t say much about whether Amazon actually agrees that API reimplementation is copyright infringement. Numerous people have noted that Amazon never has and probably never will bring a copyright case in court. But risk-averse businesses will want certainty—even the CEO of Eucalyptus did not believe that APIs were copyrightable, but still got a license as “belts and suspenders.” And many major cloud service vendors have not reimplemented Amazon’s APIs despite the obvious benefits of doing so. As one cloud service executive put it in 2014, the Oracle v. Google litigation has made it “more dangerous to use someone’s API design without consulting them first.”
Besides poking a massive hole in Oracle’s Apache-license theory, this “consult first” mentality shows how troublesome Oracle’s copyright theory is. Eucalyptus is not a traditional cloud service provider competing head-to-head with Amazon, but rather software for on-premises servers, allowing companies essentially to run a cloud computing system like AWS on their own computers. Amazon is not in the business of deploying on-site enterprise servers, so Eucalyptus would not have undercut Amazon’s profits—in fact, it probably would have increased Amazon’s profits by locking companies into Amazon’s API even before they switch from on-site servers to the cloud.
The permission culture mentality, applied to the computer industry, could end up only locking in consumers, boosting big firms, and shutting out disruptive startups from competing in the market. In evaluating Oracle’s theory of API copyright, the Supreme Court could either reject it and open the door to robust competition in the technology space, or approve copyright in APIs and entrench dominant services for years to come.