Business Law & Compliance

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What Oracle vs Google teaches bosses about IP law

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One area I believe needs more legal attention is business concepts that require setting up a social media platform.

Social media platforms are experiencing exponential growth, with 72 per cent of UK internet users now having a social media profile in 2015 according to Ofcom research. And success can turn a penniless business into one valued at almost £300m in a year, like that of US-based app YikYak.

Firms may want to interface with other sites in order to access media. This involves knowing about your legal position when using an Application Programming Interface, or API for short. Put simply, an API is a language a programmer can use to talk to a system.

The law in this area is constantly evolving and with the web design and development industry being unregulated, it is crucial to seek legal advice.

Take, for example, Oracle and Google’s ongoing legal dispute concerning APIs since 2012. Google made use of Oracle’s API and the question concerned whether the API was protected by copyright. If so, then Google was not free to make use of it without Oracle’s permission.

The courts ruled that APIs are in fact protected by copyright. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, this gives tech firms “unprecedented and dangerous power” over developers by making it substantially more difficult for upstarts to create new software.

The upshot is that you may need permission from the owner of a platform if you want to create another system which is compatible with it, for example Facebook. The legal protection of computer software is a complex and fast-paced area of law.

With regards to other social media platforms, “tropicalisation” is an occurrence that has been significant in China and Brazil. The term refers to the practice of investing in startups which take an established business model and adapt it to an emerging market – a feat that is easily achievable in today’s digital economy.

Examples include Peixe Urbano, a Brazilian clone of “daily-deal” site Groupon, Weibo, the Chinese Twitter-like microblogging platform, RenRen, the Chinese version of Facebook, Baidu, the Chinese take on Google and Alibaba, a Chinese copy of eBay.

From an IP perspective there are few legal barriers to this tactic. The law does not protect bare business models. Elements of a business model might be protected. A patent can sometimes protect the technology, copyright can protect the expression of a concept, designs can protect the aesthetic aspects and trademarks protect business and product names.

Securing a range of intellectual property rights in different elements can combine to provide the most powerful protection as each IP right protects you in subtly different ways and situations. 

Shireen Smith is IP law expert at Azrights

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