Some Thoughts About the Big Trial

I’ve been following with interest the second trial between Oracle and Google, thanks to excellent coverage on ArsTechnica by Joe Mullin. I am not a lawyer, but I have seen some apocalyptic hyperbole about this trial which seems misplaced. And I’m not sure to what extent Google’s victory in this round is a win for the Java programming community, as Google has announced.

Intellectual property is part of software development, whether we like it or not (and we humans tend to like the idea of property a lot more when we are its owners), no matter what the ultimate outcome of this trial (Oracle has vowed to appeal, so it’s not really over).   It can be a pain to have to deal with copyright for what seems like a minor part of one’s creation – just ask Men at Work – but it also allows people who create things to make money. And just because Google has thus far been able to resist a legal assault based on copyright doesn’t mean your little startup will.

As software developers in the world of commercial software, we are for the most part paid by companies which tell their investors that they are investing in intellectual property.  Without that investment, our field might not exist outside of some obscure corners of universities.

There is of course a trade-off between freedom from restrictions, which attracts development activity, and restrictions, which attract investment.  In our industry, it seems like a majority companies end up failing, and so developer salaries have probably come more from investment than from consumer purchases or ad revenues.

Sun Microsystems tried to have it both ways, touting Java as free to use while assuring investors, including ultimately Oracle, that they had intellectual property protections. This is the gray area where Android was created. Oracle’s lawyers thought they had a smoking gun in their case with Google’s internal email from 2010 (PDF file), but the issues around open source and licensing are complex, and this jury didn’t see things the way Oracle’s lawyers do. In 2006, Sun announced Java as being free and open – as summarized by the Free Software Foundation. Note that the announcement by Sun linked to in the FSF article is no longer functional on Oracle’s web site, but I think I have found it in Oracle’s blog archives.

Android seems to be good for Java usage.  Java usage was in decline until late 2013.  It has sharply risen since then.  The release of Java 8  and the decline of Objective-C after Apple’s switch to Swift probably contributed to this rise, but I think that Android is a big factor.

TIOBE index graph in 2016 showing recent rise of Java
TIOBE index graph showing the decline and rise of Java usage

 

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