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On Monday, the Supreme Court said copying other people’s computer codes was in some cases a kosher thing. That gave Google a decade-long victory with Oracle over the guts of the Android smartphone system.
I will explain why the tech industry was relieved by this decision and the ways it could suit artists, writers, and archivists. I also want us to ponder this: Why do these difficult legal questions seem inevitable in the tech sector right now?
What is the legal case?
Oracle controls software programming technologies known as Java, which is a building block for many digital applications and services. Google already uses a relatively small piece of Java computer code in its Android operating system, and that makes it easier for software professionals to create smartphone apps.
In the case of Google suing Oracle USA, Google said standard practice is to copy what is known as the application programming interface or API, a set of guidelines to ensure that the technologies from other companies each other can work together. Oracle says that Google stole its software and demanded billions of dollars. Each company said it was trying to save the tech industry from destruction.
These are the intricacies of which both sides’ lawyers and judges grasp the same spells – safety tracks, soccer books, and restaurant menus – to interpret the APIs. In his majority opinion on behalf of the six judges, Justice Stephen G. Breyer compared the APIs to the accelerator pedal, which says a car moves faster and the keyboard types a letter. when you press a specific key.
One big question remains unanswered, but it may not matter.
Google won. Although as my colleague Adam Liptak wrote, the Supreme Court previously said that they would answer two questions: Can companies like Oracle license the APIs, and if so. , whether Google’s use of them is consistent with an exception to copyright law known as fair use. The majority of the judges only answer the second question, with one agreement.
Two judges, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr., said it was wrong to ignore the question of whether APIs are protected by copyright law. Justice Thomas wrote that he would say yes.
Although the judges have left an open question, IP attorneys have told me that the decision should provide comfort to companies using the API. Essentially, the Supreme Court blessed what Google did because it used the API and converted the software into something new that could benefit all of us.
Many technologists have sided with Google – even those typically not fans of the company. They worry that if companies can discourage competitors from using APIs or charge exorbitant prices to use them, it could discourage companies from inventing new products. To them, the Supreme Court’s decision was relieved.
“It will be a great consolation for many companies trying to establish and be compatible with their competitors,” said Charles Duan, senior fellow at the R Street Institute, a marketing advocacy organization. free and limited fields, said. government.
Oracle says that Google “stole Java and spent a decade litigating as only a monopolist could.” (These companies don’t like each other at all.)
What are the potential consequences?
Duan and the other experts I spoke to say they are delighted that the judges support a broad view of legal use. It’s the concept that if you quote words or images that belong to someone else and add enough of your own creativity, you don’t need to ask permission or pay them.
But determining if something is under a legal use exception can be complicated and even feels subjective. This month, a court ruled that an image of the Prince taken by Andy Warhol was not legal for a photo.
Justice Breyer wrote that when considering whether legal use applies or not, courts should not only consider the technical questions about the two parties involved in the case, but think big about copying. whether it is beneficial to society or not.
Kendra Albert, a clinical lecturer at Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic, told me that this decision could lead to more legal protections for artists who create fiction. and a group that Albert represents hosts old software, such as earlier versions of Microsoft Excel.
Technology is basically all legal battles.
I want to leave you with a point that I discussed with Mark Lemley, a professor of copyright and antitrust at Stanford Law School.
The tech industry is currently tense with legal questions: How should the First Amendment apply to social media companies? Do antitrust laws need to be rewritten for Big Tech? Is the 25-year Internet law that preserves everyone’s freedom of expression or stifles it? Technology now revolves around laws, not just computer code.
Before we go …
One SCOTUS shivered through social media: Also on Monday, Justice Thomas thought that big sites like Facebook might not deserve legal protections to control what people say online. Adam Liptak wrote that “Justice Thomas’s view of the First Amendment may have its own style” but his opinion reflects “the disappointment, especially among conservatives, about the to let private companies decide what the public can read and watch. ”
An opportunity to use tech superpowers: BuzzFeed News reports that people at nearly 2,000 police departments and other taxpayer-sponsored agencies have used Clearview AI to perform around 340,000 searches of people’s faces – usually by the supervisor or the public. do not know.
My colleague Kashmir Hill has written extensively about Clearview’s facial recognition technology, something some people really want and others fear.
When missed calls are big business: Because cell phone calls are so expensive in India, many people get in touch by calling their friends and hanging up the phone. Rest of World explains how a company exploits that habit by using missed calls to deliver cricket scores, digital songs, and more. It all blew up when smartphone data got cheap in India.
Evan Manivong, a gymnast at the University of Illinois, stuck landing on a bunker and later Celebrate by showing off your Covid-19 vaccination card. Run a public health campaign from his videos.
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