On June 29, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court took an action that has the potential to sabotage software innovation, put an end to open source software, and further confuse the already muddled state of copyright law regarding APIs. The following statement by technology expert Brian Proffitt regarding the significance of APIs serves to underscore the importance of this decision to the Internet as we know it: “In many ways, the widespread availability of APIs for major services is what’s made the modern Web experience possible.”
Application programming interfaces, or APIs, are the mechanism for interaction between unrelated code, acting as a kind of shared jargon so that applications can interact without necessitating the sharing of proprietary information. All programming languages have APIs in order to allow various programs to interact with each other without learning the underlying code, which is both secret and protected by copyright in proprietary software. They are essentially mathematical formulas enabling a black box type of interaction between programs.
In this particular case, Oracle v. Google, the programming language at issue is Java, which is the most popular amongst software developers. This popularity is the reason that Google chose to copy Java’s declaring code during the development of the Android OS, as they wanted it make it easier for developers to create applications for Android. However, it is important to note that Google created its own underlying code, with the understanding that the declaring code that it used was not copyrightable. This was a reasonable belief, considering that this case is breaking new legal ground, as historically there has been little to no litigation over APIs, which most companies have treated as unprotected—until now.
Furthermore, at the time that Android was developed, Google had been given the tacit go-ahead by the then-owners of Java, Sun Microsystems, as confirmed by the testimony of their former CEO. However, Oracle acquired Java when it purchased Sun Microsystems in 2009 and the company subsequently decided to file suit against Google for its use of 37 Java APIs, in the form of multiple patent and copyright claims. The case was exceedingly complex but eventually (following a jury verdict for Google on the patent claims) boiled down to a single issue—the copyrightability of APIs.
In May 2012, the Northern District of California ruled that APIs cannot be copyrighted and dismissed Oracle’s copyright claim. Judge William Haskell Alsup, a programmer himself, correctly stated that “copyright law does not confer ownership over any and all ways to implement a function or specification of any and all methods used in the Java API.” However, Oracle then appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which reversed the lower court’s decision in May 2014, a choice that faced immediate, strong criticism. Naturally, Google appealed this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation submitted an amicus brief on the behalf of 77 computer scientists, explaining to the Court why allowing the appellate decision to stand would damage the entire field and future of computer science.
“The Federal Circuit’s decision was wrong and dangerous for technological innovation,” EFF Intellectual Property Director Corynne McSherry said. “Excluding APIs from copyright protection has been essential to the development of modern computers and the Internet. The ruling is bad law, and bad policy.”
However, the EFF was not the only organization to file an amicus brief regarding this case. The Court asked the Obama Administration for its viewpoint and, in a surprise filing, the Department of Justice stated that Oracle should be allowed to own APIs and urged the Court to decline to hear the case. Ultimately, the Court followed the advice of the DOJ and denied certiorari. Because the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals issues binding precedent within its subject matter jurisdiction, the decision in Oracle v. Google is now the law throughout the nation.
Although the case will now return to the federal district court to try Google’s fair use defense, the blow to interoperability, innovation, and open source software has already been dealt. We now live in a technology market in which all of the above are dependent upon the goodwill of competitors, opening the door for anticompetitive behavior on the part of bad actors, such as that displayed by Oracle in this case. The import of this decision was succinctly stated by Simon Phipps of InfoWorld back in April 2012, as the case was about to be heard by the federal district court: “If Oracle wins its Android suit, everyone loses.”