This week, a decision came in for the Oracle Vs Google appeal that has overturned an earlier ruling and has sent shock waves through the entire technology industry. This case could set dangerous precedent as the question at the core of the appeal was if Oracle can claim copyright on Java API's and if they can did Google infringe copyright. Oracle's win translates developers being able to control who can make interoperable software, blocking competitors and creative new products.
Two years ago, Judge William Alsup of the Northern District of California ruled that Application Programming Interfaces are not subject to copyright. If the court had ruled otherwise it would have impermissibly and dangerously allowed Oracle to tie up "a utilitarian and functional set of symbols," which provides the basis for so much of the innovation and collaboration we all rely on today. Simply, where "there is only one way to declare a given method functionality, [so that] everyone using that function must write that specific line of code in the same way," that coding language cannot be subject to copyright.
In computer programming today, the application programming interface is deemed to be one of the most important tools. Being the tool that specifies how software components should interact with each other it allows third party services to pull information from social networks and other services alike.
"When programmers can freely reimplement or reverse engineer an API without the need to negotiate a costly license or risk a lawsuit, they can create compatible software that the interface's original creator might never have envisioned or had the resources to create. Moreover, compatible APIs enable people to switch platforms and services freely, and to find software that meets their needs regardless of what browser or operating system they use. The freedom to reimplement APIs also helps rescue "orphan" software or data—systems whose creators have either gone out of business or abandoned their product in the marketplace.
Today's decision puts all of that at risk, potentially handing Oracle and others veto power over any developer who wants to create a compatible program. What is worse, if today's decision is taken as a green light to API litigation, large and small software tech companies are going to have to divert more and more resources away from development, and toward litigation. That will be good for the legal profession—but not so good for everyone else." wrote Coryne McSherry on the EFF Blog
"The law is already clear that computer languages are mediums of communication and aren't copyrightable. Even though copyright might cover what was creatively written in the language, it doesn't cover functions that must all be written in the same way," said EFF Staff Attorney Julie Samuels. "APIs are similarly functional – they are specifications allowing programs to communicate with each other. As Judge Alsup found, under the law APIs are simply not copyrightable material."
"Without the compatibility enabled by APIs that are open, we would not have the vibrant computer and Internet environment we experience today, with new products and services routinely changing the way we see and interact with the world," said EFF Fellow Michael Barclay. "APIs that are open spur the development of software, creating programs that the interface's original creator might never have envisioned."
The case is far from over. Google will probably go for a hearing from the full court, or appeal to the Supreme Court. If it does not decide to do that, Google can also focus on banking on a fair use defense, and hope that fair use can prevent hampering innovation. There is widespread confidence that Google can succeed using even this strategy, it is just a sad day for Computer Science if they have to.