August 28, 2020 at 5:00 am ET
Google’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court of two Federal Circuit decisions in Oracle’s favor is turning into the most consequential copyright case of the court’s term — if not the decade. The appeal turns in part on whether the Supreme Court will uphold the Federal Circuit’s definition of fair use for creators and reject Google’s dubious assertion of “industrial strength” fair use.
I co-wrote an amicus brief on the fair use question on behalf of independent songwriters supporting Oracle in the appeal. Our conclusion was that the Supreme Court should affirm the Federal Circuit’s extensive analysis and hold for Oracle because Google masks its monopoly commercial interest in industrial-strength fair use that actually violates fair use principles.
The story begins 15 years ago. Google had a strategic problem. The company had focused on dominating the desktop search market. Google needed an industrial-strength booster for its business because smartphones, especially the iPhone, were relentlessly eating its corporate lunch. Google bought Android Inc. in 2005 to extend its dominance over search — some might say its monopoly — to these mobile platforms. It worked — Android’s market share has hovered around 85 percent for many years, with well over 2 billion Android devices.
But how Google acquired that industrial boost for Android is the core issue in the Oracle case. After acquiring Android, Google tried to make a license deal for Sun Microsystems’ Java operating system (later acquired by Oracle). Google didn’t like Sun’s deal. So Google simply took a verbatim chunk of the Java declaring code, and walled off Android from Java. That’s why Google got sued and that’s why the case is before the court. Google has been making excuses for that industrial-strength taking ever since.
Why would a public company engage in an overt taking of Oracle’s code? The same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks. Because that’s where the money is. There are untold riches in running the Internet of Other People’s Things.
Google chose to take rather than innovate. Google’s supporters released a study of the self-described “fair use industries” — an Orwellian oxymoron, but one that Google firmly embraces. Google’s taking is not transformative but it is industrial strength.
We have seen this movie before. It’s called the value gap. It’s called a YouTube class-action brought by an independent composer. It’s called Google Books. It’s called 4 billion takedown notices for copyright infringement. It’s called selling advertising on pirate sites like Megaupload (as alleged in the Megaupload indictment). It’s called business as usual for Google by distorting exceptions to the rights of authors for Google’s enormous commercial benefit. Google now positions itself to the Supreme Court as a champion of innovation, but creators standing with Oracle know that for Google, “innovation” has become an empty vessel that it fills with whatever shibboleth it can carelessly manipulate to excuse its latest outrage.
Let’s remember that the core public policy justification for the fair use defense is to advance the public interest. As the leading fair use commentator Judge Pierre Leval teaches, that’s why fair use analysis is devoted to determining “whether, and how powerfully, a finding of fair use would serve or disserve the objectives of the copyright.” You can support robust fair use without supporting Google’s position.
Google would have the court believe that its fair use defense absolves it from liability for the industrial-strength taking of Oracle’s copyright — because somehow the public interest was furthered by “promoting software innovation,” often called “permissionless innovation” (a phrase straight out of Orwell’s Newspeak). Google would have the court conflate Google’s vast commercial private interest with the public objectives of copyright. Because the internet.
How the Supreme Court rules on Google’s fair use issue will have wide-ranging implications across all works of authorship if for no other reason than Google will dine out for years to come on a ruling in its favor. Photographers, authors, illustrators, documentarians — all will be on the menu.
Despite Google’s protestations that it is really just protecting innovation, what is good for Google is not synonymous with what is good for the public interest — any more than “what’s good for General Motors is good for America,” or more appropriately, “what’s good for General Bullmoose is good for the USA.”
Chris Castle is an Austin, Texas, attorney who co-wrote the amicus brief supporting Oracle for songwriters Helienne Lindvall, David Lowery, Blake Morgan and the Songwriters Guild of America.
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