Supreme Court Decision Affirms Open-Source’s Role in Modern Software Development

A Supreme Court ruling that sided with

Alphabet Inc.’s

Google in its 10-year legal battle with

Oracle Corp.

reaffirms the business model behind open-source software—sharing bits of computer code for free, experts said.

The ruling on Monday said Google did not violate copyright protections when it used lines of Java computer code that allow its Android mobile operating system to connect to other software. Oracle acquired Sun Microsystems Inc., which created Java, in 2010.

Experts said the ruling affirmed the right of companies to freely use one another’s software to some extent, a practice that has been key to innovation and interoperability. Some voiced concern that the line between fair use and copyright infringement was unclear, and that it could make it harder for startups to make a return on their investment. Others said a ruling in Oracle’s favor might have encouraged a wave of copyright lawsuits that could have discouraged open-source practices.

Open-source software developers make software available for free, hoping users will then pay for add-ons like enterprise-grade features or tech support. Programmers can modify, share or create new applications from the underlying source code without paying licensing fees. Android is an example of open-source software as are the Linux operating systems, the Firefox browser, the platform that supports digital currency Ether and the Python computer language.

Sharing code captured the spirit of software development and the original hacker mentality in the early days of the web. The idea has since become more mainstream.

International Business Machines Corp.

in July 2019 closed its roughly $33 billion deal for Red Hat, which has described itself as the largest open-source company in the world.

Microsoft Corp.

in 2018 acquired software-code repository GitHub Inc., which hosts many open-source projects. Last year

Goldman Sachs Group Inc.

open-sourced its data modeling platform.

“The Google platform just got bigger and market power greater. The barriers to entry higher and the ability to compete lower,” Oracle said in a statement about Monday’s ruling.

Kent Walker,

Google’s chief legal officer and senior vice president for global affairs, told The Wall Street Journal in an interview that the ruling provides legal certainty for software developers. “Innovation happens by standing on each other’s shoulders and that is what’s going on here,” Mr. Walker said.

David Mooter, a senior analyst at information-technology research firm

Forrester Research Inc.,

said a decision in Oracle’s favor would have exposed open-source software makers to copyright trolls threatening lawsuits over similarities between competing software codes. Those similarities are common, he added, because there are only so many ways to write code.

“Averting that threat will make open-source business models easier,” Mr. Mooter said.

“The decision effectively confirms what has been the normal course of practice in the software industry for decades,” said Mark Bohannon, vice president of global public policy and associate general counsel at Red Hat. “Had the Supreme Court sided with Oracle, the risk for open-source and software generally could have been significant,” Mr. Bohannon said.

Red Hat, in a statement released after Tuesday’s ruling, called the decision a win for developers and the software industry: “It recognizes the critical role of software interfaces to promote innovation, interoperability and new technologies,” the company said.

Several open-source companies, including Red Hat and Mozilla Corp., filed amicus briefs in favor of Google during the course of the trial.

Some experts warn, however, that the decision could create obstacles to software innovation. “This is onerous to startups who don’t have the legal might to fight IP theft masquerading as ‘doctrine of fair use,’” said R “Ray” Wang, founder and chief analyst at Constellation Research Inc.

Kelley Mak, a principal at enterprise-technology-focused venture-capital firm Work-Bench, said the decision could also be a double-edged sword with respect to open source.

“One challenge for the industry is how these commercial open-source companies can create enough value to build a lasting company that isn’t subsumed when a larger cloud player like

Amazon

or Microsoft recreates it,” Mr. Mak said.

Write to Angus Loten at [email protected]

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