It’s the legal battles that both defend a software company’s rights and property, but also generally make life sorta miserable for everyone else, especially if you’re on the development end.
Case in point: an ongoing legal and intellectual property squabble between Oracle and Google over the rights to assorted Java APIs, as covered by PCWorld.
In the article, nearly three dozen prominent computer scientists (including MS-DOS pioneer Tim Paterson, ARPANET developer Larry Roberts and others) have signed off on a court brief opposing Oracle’s efforts to copyright assorted Java APIs. The signees stated that such a move would hinder the computer industry and increase the price of affordable tools to developers.
The article then goes on to explain the foundations of the case. Oracle is accusing Google of copyright infringement via its use of Java in its Android operating system, while Google denies any wrongdoing and states that the Java APIs aren’t eligible for copyright protection under U.S. law.
From there, the case is about what you’d expect: two giant software companies slugging it out in court over intellectual property. Google has gone on to make billions from what were generally considered open-source, GPL-protected tools, and Oracle is crying foul, or at least expecting a settlement check with quite a few zeros on it.
If I’m going to take a side here, it’s with the computer scientists and the brief they’ve signed, especially considering the state of Java at this moment. Having grown up with Java and suffered through its early incarnations, its stabilization and its expansion, the language has had a rough journey on its path to becoming viable. In its earlier mid-to-late-90s incarnations, it was slow and the idea of running an entire application from it seemed like nothing more than a cruel joke (albeit Corel would advocate that its then-upcoming version of WordPerfect would make the user’s life better thanks to “The power of Java!”). As the years went by, the development and implementation tools for it became more refined, and in spite of assorted and well-publicized security holes, Java and its APIs have become that much better.
And while it’s probably critical to Oracle to protect their investment, intellectual property and bottom line, copyrighting the Java APIs won’t push the language in the direction it needs to go.
If anything, Java and its APIs are some of the best possible examples of open source done right. Yes, Oracle has had a guiding hand on the tiller, but for the most part, the language has been left alone, and whoever wanted to work with it could download and use the development tools for free. And, the language has arguably become that much more fully-featured and secure in recent years thanks to the contribution system already in place.
Too many chefs will spoil the meal, that much is certain. But a project with only few chefs will never get the full feedback/positive benefits of open source to begin with. And if Google and Oracle can sit down, realize that the point of contention is in revenue sharing and not in control of a programming language that made Android and a thousand other projects viable, then they’ll be that much better in the long run.