Well done America: APIs are copyrightable now

Oracle Headquarters

Back in 2012 after a six-week trial of critical importance, Google won a decisive victory over Oracle concerning the rights to use the Java APIs. Now that victory has been overturned by an appeals court in a ruling that is as misguided as it is dangerous.

In the original case Judge Alsup, having taught himself to program so as to better understand the issues at hand, concluded:

So long as the specific code used to implement a method is different, anyone is free under the Copyright Act to write his or her own code to carry out exactly the same function or specification of any methods used in the Java API

That’s fairly clear and decisive. But now the US Appeals Court for the Federal Circuit have ruled to the contrary:

Because we conclude that the declaring code and the structure, sequence, and organization of the API packages are entitled to copyright protection, we reverse the district court’s copyrightability determination with instructions to reinstate the jury’s infringement finding as to the 37 Java packages.

There are two results here. Firstly, since the jury in the original case found that should the APIs be subject to copyright Google had indeed infringed. So now the jury’s decision stands and now Google have to fall back on their fair-use defence, which Alsup agreed with but the jury split on.

More crucially though, as far as American law is concerned, APIs are subject to copyright. That has severe repercussions for interoperability. You can only write a system that interoperates with another if you use the same interfaces, the same API. That’s the whole point. To say that you need a licence to do so goes against some of the foundations of software development. Techdirt and Android Police rant about it far better than I can. Suffice to say, the appeals court doesn’t seem to understand the slightest aspect of what they were ruling on and they might just have made a huge mess for a lot of people. A lot of people.

[Image from Not Quite a Photographr]

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