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Compatibility is About Competition, Too

February 26, 2015 ,

The Oracle v. Google case is not just about innovation, but about competition.

The case itself is mostly about whether copyright prevents a software developer (or more broadly, any author or inventor) from creating a new product that is in some ways compatible with an older one. Public Knowledge and many others have argued that it does not—copyright cannot be used to protect functional articles like the names of API calls and other things that are necessary for a new product to implement to ensure compatibility. Copyright does and should prevent a new developer from copying someone else’s code wholesale (outside the terms of a license), but it does not and should not prevent a new developer from taking the minimum steps necessary to create a functionally identical or compatible new work.

This is because driving technology forward often requires “backwards compatibility:” new technologies have to be able to take advantage of knowledge people already have, and work they've already done. That's why Android tries to be API-compatible with older implementations of the Java virtual machine: it allows Java developers to use the skills they have already acquired in developing with a new platform, and in some cases, reuse the code they have already written. It's about allowing developers to make the most of their skills and their code, not about Android trying to take something away from Oracle's version of Java.

But this is not just about the shiny new thing. Sometimes software isn't trying to be “innovative,” to reinvent the wheel or usher in some bold new paradigm about computing. Rather, it's about offering a new product, perhaps differentiated in some way, into an existing market. “Fast followers,” generics, and free and open alternatives to proprietary products might not grab headlines, but they are an important part of a competitive ecosystem. For example, a free and open source word processor might try to look and work as much like Microsoft Word as possible, to take advantage of users' existing skill sets. It might read and write documents saved in Microsoft Word format. But this by itself doesn't mean it's infringing. Similarly, it shouldn’t be illegal, much less copyright infringement, just to make a replacement part for a car or third-party toner for a printer.

Oracle is asking the Supreme Court for the right to be the only one who can use an API. But if things like the structure of an API were copyrightable, competition would suffer. Adobe might be able to prevent other image editing software from being able to read data that has been saved in Photoshop format. It might be impossible to run Windows software on Linux through projects like WINE. These computer scientists provide many more cautionary examples. But it’s not just software that would suffer if things like API structures were copyrightable–citation systems, languages, methods of organizing information, and even the ability to repair items you own, may find themselves restricted by a new form of copyright.

Introducing more choice into a market, driving down prices, or making a product available on more generous license terms might not be as exciting as the new new thing. But just as copyright should not be used to stifle innovation, it should not be used to stifle competition. Markets depend on competitors to function, and Oracle's view of copyright, if upheld, could replace markets with monopoly.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons user Bobbygammill