While the rest of the country enjoyed their Thanksgiving dinners and began their Christmas shopping, the big brass at Google had a lot to think and worry about over the long weekend.
You may recall that earlier this year, Google was the recipient of a bipartisan grilling in Congress over its predatory business practices. The big tech goliath was unable to offer up even a semblance of a convincing defense, leading some to speculate that an antitrust bust-up was awaiting on the horizon.
Over the past few months, those rumblings have turned into reality.
First, in October, the Department of Justice announced a formal antitrust lawsuit, putting the full weight of the federal government on Google’s neck. Then, last week — just two days before Thanksgiving — a bipartisan coalition of state attorneys general announced plans for a second lawsuit, which may come this month (a third antitrust suit spearheaded by Texas is also in the works). It is very likely that by next summer, every state and federal division of the judicial branch will be pursuing the breakup of the search engine giant.
But it may be the Supreme Court, traditionally the final stop on legal journeys, that strikes the first blow.
Observers may recall that back in October, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a copyright infringement case regarding the shady origins of Google’s Android software. The lawsuit’s gist is that Oracle claims Google sticky-fingered Java source code developed by its subsidiary, Sun Microsystems, to build up Android OS — a multi-billion-dollar revenue generator that runs on millions of smartphones.
Consider some of the most damning details.
According to the lawsuit, Google stole what it refused to buy after Sun offered Google a three-year license to use its code. The deal would have cost Google $100 million. Google decided that, as Woody Woodpecker used to say, free was a much better price.
This is an interesting argument. If Google initially sought permission to use Sun’s code, it implies that Google knew perfectly well the code wasn’t just theirs to take. One doesn’t ask permission to use the public sidewalk. One does ask permission to borrow the neighbor’s car — and if the borrower takes it for a drive without permission, everyone understands what that is.
The Supreme Court appears to understand this point very well, which doesn’t look good for Google.
As Justice Brett Kavanaugh put it: “You’re not allowed to copy a song just because it’s the only way to express that (particular) song.” In other words, the fact that Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin is the only song that sounds like Stairway to Heaven doesn’t mean that people who didn’t write it have a right to record it and sell it just because they like the way it sounds.
If they did so, everyone would understand a theft had occurred, and the thief would be held accountable.
Justice Neil Gorsuch made the point that the existence of one avenue, however popular it may be, doesn’t prevent creators from finding new ones. The fact the Led Zeppelin wrote Stairway to Heaven and made a lot of money selling albums in no way prevented Stone Temple Pilots from writing Plush and selling lots of albums of their own.
Gorsuch’s reasoning explains why other mobile operators managed to create their products without using Java at all. Java wasn’t the only way into town, so to speak, as Google claims; the tech giant just refused to find a new path.
While we likely won’t know the official decision until the summer, Google is likely sweating bullets.
It’s one of the wealthiest companies in history, but it’s facing an unprecedented level of legal pressure due to two decades of bad behavior. From the outside looking in, it appears the courts are circling the wagons.
Consumers need not worry. None of the services Google provides are irreplaceable innovations or at threat of disappearing in the case of a breakup. It’s even possible that, with the market’s largest digital predator subdued, a breakup would lead to a flurry of new digital services.
The only people who have to worry are Google shareholders and employees. They’re looking at legal cases and potentially billions in losses. Those prospects would dampen anyone’s holiday season.