Fighting for the Future of Vehicles
A small part of copied code has led to a long-held battle between Google and Oracle, a computer technology company that sells database software and technology, that could have implications for the automotive repair industry.
The case, Google v. Oracle, upheld a charge by Oracle that Google had violated a software copyright when Google copied a small part of the application program interfaces (API) code from Oracle that was necessary to enable interoperability—the ability of software to exchange and make use of information—with programs from Google’s Android operating system. And now, as a last resort, Google has petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review both copyright and fair use rulings. At the time of reporting (early in March) the case was sitting in the Supreme Court’s hands until they officially call for oral arguments, which has been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic [Ratchet+Wrench will continue to monitor and post updates].
This is all about software, so why should the auto industry care? The future implications, about which the Auto Care Association (ACA) is being proactive. The ACA went so far as to file an amicus brief—a document filed by someone not directly involved in the case but who has a strong interest in the subject matter—because the decision could ultimately impact the automotive repair industry by allowing OEMs to leverage copyright over aftermarket parts manufacturers, and essentially, removing competition in the types of reliable parts available altogether. For example, if the charge is upheld, in the future, OEMs could shut aftermarket parts out from creating reliable, OEM-quality parts.
Regardless of the outcome, it’s important to understand the implications this ruling would have on, not only the auto repair industry, but also the entire future of software development.
Aaron Lowe, the ACA’s senior vice president of regulatory and government affairs, sheds some more light on the matter and answers how it could affect the automotive industry in the future.
What implications could this have on the automotive industry?
I see two possible impacts if the Supreme Court rules against us: No. 1, a reduction in the number of replacement parts available for repair, and therefore an increase in parts costs, since companies that need to build parts containing certain software codes that are needed to interact with the software code on the vehicle will be prevented from developing that code due to the copyright protection. This could change the dimension of how auto repair shops get their parts, and limit what is available for auto repair shops. For example, auto repair shops could have access to software down the road in order to better serve their customer, and the passing of this copyright could play into having restrictions on the software to build compatible parts.
The second thing I see, which is less likely but still possible, are legal actions undertaken by vehicle manufacturers against facilities that attempt to install non-OE replacement parts or new software that the vehicle manufacturers believe violate their copyright protection. Software is in everything. A vehicle these days is essentially software on wheels.
Why did the Auto Care Association get involved?
It is critical that the Court understand the implications of permitting companies to copyright APIs in order to prevent lawful development of compatible replacement parts and to perform vehicle repairs. The courts must understand the impact on competition of software copyright issues.
The good news is that it doesn't directly apply to the automotive industry, but we saw something that could have implications down the road. This case could have implications for similar companies in the auto repair industry, namely parts manufacturers and remanufacturers. It’s more that they will be forced to be owned by only OEM parts, which could mean auto software parts replacement stores would go out of business. We understand how vehicles are changing and we’re making sure we stay ahead of the curve on issues like this. It’s to make the Court aware of the implications that their judgement could have on other industries.
What’s the ACA’s stance on the issue?
We believe competition is good for everyone and helps build better products and keep their cars longer. Members of the Auto Care Association build parts in order for them to be compatible, and the decision on this case could hamper that business greatly. It could take away the competitiveness in the aftermarket altogether.