The API Copyright Debate Surfaces Again
  November 10, 2014

It all started back in May 2014, when a federal appeals court made a ruling that sparked outrage and controversy in the software industry. Their decision was theoretically a final step in the long-standing lawsuit between Google and Oracle, where Oracle claims that Android (owned by Google) violated its copyright by copying a portion of the Java API directly into Android. While it is a battle between giants, at its core it is really a battle between Java and Android, two standard technologies that have bolstered innovation and advance over the last several years.

The lawsuit was initially launched in 2010 when Oracle purchased Sun, and hence Java, and filed a copyright and patent infringement lawsuit against Google, who purchased Android in 2005. The lawsuit itself was based on nine lines of code which were copied verbatim from Java, including the methods and class names. In 2012, after two years of wrangling, a judge ruled for Google, using a library metaphor to explain his ruling. According to Judge Alsup, the code is analogous to a library, with the packages being similar to bookshelves, the classes similar to books, and the methods being chapters. Basically, Judge Alsup's ruling indicated that you can organize libraries and books the same way, even have the same tables of contents but if the content itself is different, that is not copyright infringement.

But Oracle was not content to leave it at that. They appealed the 2012 ruling and, in May 2014, won their case when a Federal Circuit court overruled the initial win for Google. That court ruled that the "structure, sequence and organization" could be copyrighted and, as such, Google violated Oracle's copyright. It was that decision that sparked endless debates and outrage. Would this cause a decay in the spirit of collaboration and innovation that marks the current culture of software development?

A couple of weeks after that controversial ruling, a few of us were gathered in Denver for an API Unconference, hosted by Kin Lane and Steve Willmott, where we tried to unravel this ruling and what it might mean for the industry as a whole. We saw it as akin to copyrighting a restaurant menu, which would kill the food industry and would make little sense because most foodies will tell you that it's not the menu itself, but rather the implementation of the menu that matters.

The debate wasn't isolated to just software practitioners though - many in the legal community also found the decision to be controversial. While some felt this was a move toward a more sensible and enforceable business model for APIs and innovation, others felt it was along the same lines as the Net Neutrality debate, leaving innovation in the hands of the corporate giants who can afford the litigation behind it.

So, it will be a relief to many in the software industry to learn that this is not the end of the story. On November 7, 2014, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) asked the Supreme Court to review the May 2014 ruling by the federal appeals court. With a prestigious list of signatures, including most of the designers of today's software industry standard languages and technologies, the brief states that "open, uncopyrightable APIs continue to spur the creation and adoption of new technologies" and indicated that the principles of technology creation are threatened by this decision. While it is not certain yet whether the Supreme Court will accept the case for review, it is heartening to know that the software industry continues to fight for free and equal rights to innovation.