It’s not an issue of Google’s use of Java, developed by Sun Microsystems, which Oracle acquired in 2009. Rather it’s a question of whether software APIs can be protected by copyright.
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Because Android exploits Java but is not fully compatible with it, Android represents Sun’s, and now Oracle’s, nightmare: an incompatible forking of the Java platform, which undermines the fundamental ‘write once, run anywhere’ premise of Java that is so critical to its value and appeal.
Google claims Android’s development didn’t require a license, though an internal email (which Google sought to suppress) would suggest that some of its employees thought otherwise. If the court issues an injunction requiring Google to alter its code, every developer of an Android app, independent or corporate, would be impacted.
Dan Crow, chief technology officer at Songkick and a former Google tech team leader, told BBC News:
If Oracle wins the case and APIs are held to be copyrighted, then in theory, virtually every application – on Android, Mac OS, Windows, iPhone or any other platform – has to be at least re-released under new license terms. This could result in many applications being withdrawn until their legality is resolved.
If Oracle wins, the decision could set a legal precedent that legitimizes controlling behaviors by platform vendors – and introduces a complex and unwelcome legalism into software development. Header files and function prototypes would need copyright statements and corresponding copyright licenses. Open source developers would need to check that the open source license on header files they were using was compatible with the open source license on their software. Corporate developers would receive instructions from their legal departments not to use GPL headers for fear of the license terms becoming applicable to corporate software.
Malcolm Barclay, an independent app developer for iPhones, told the BBC:
It would not be practical to go under the hood of each API to see if someone was going to sue you over using it.
It would be the equivalent of buying a music CD and suddenly finding someone wanted to charge you for listening to track 10.