Attorneys for the Oracle and Google companies presented opening statements this week in a high-stakes copyright case about the use of application-programming interfaces, or APIs. As Oracle eagerly noted, there are potentially billions of dollars on the line; accordingly, each side has brought “world-class attorneys,” as Judge William Alsup noted to the jury. And while each company would prefer to spend their money elsewhere, these are businesses that can afford to spend years and untold resources in the courtroom.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the overwhelming majority of developers in the computer industry, whether they’re hobbyist free software creators or even large companies. Regardless of the outcome of this fair use case, the fact that it proceeded to this stage at all casts a long legal shadow over the entire world of software development.
At issue is Google’s use in its Android mobile operating system of Java API labels—a category of code Google (and EFF) previously argued was not eligible for copyright. Judge Alsup, who demonstrated some proficiency with programming Java in the first leg of the case, came to the same conclusion. But then the Federal Circuit reversed that position two years ago, and when the Supreme Court declined to hear the issue, there was nowhere left to appeal. With this new decision on copyrightability handed down from above, Google and Oracle now proceed to litigate the question of whether Android’s inclusion of the labels is a fair use.
If Google wins at this stage, it’s tempting to declare the nightmare of that Federal Circuit opinion behind us. After all, fair use is a right—and even if API labels are subject to copyright restrictions, those restrictions are not absolute. Google prevailing on fair use grounds would set a good precedent for the next developer of API-compatible software to argue that their use too is fair.
Tempting, but not quite right. After all, there is a real cost to defending fair use. It takes time, money, lawyers, and thanks to the outrageous penalties associated with copyright infringement, comes with a substantial risk. Beyond all those known costs, wedging a layer of copyright permissions culture into API compatibility comes with serious unknowable costs, too: how many developers will abandon ideas for competitive software because the legal risks are too great?
There’s a reason people say that if you love fair use, you should give it a day off once in a while. Even the vital doctrine of fair use shouldn’t be the only outlet for free speech. In many areas, an absence of copyright, or the use of permissive public licenses, can foster more creativity than fair use alone could. Sadly for now, in the world of software development it’s the paradigm we have.