May 31, 2012 | By Julie Samuels

No Copyrights on APIs: Judge Defends Interoperability and Innovation

Innovation for the win: A federal judge ruled today that Java's APIs are not copyrightable. The federal district judge in the widely reported Oracle v. Google case ruled in favor of innovation and interoperability, allowing software to use Application Programming Interfaces without paying a license fee. Judge Alsup's opinion is important news for software developers and entrepreneurs. 

To recap: Oracle, the current owner of Java, sued Google for, among other things, using Java APIs in its Android OS. Oracle claimed that Google infringed both its patents and copyrights. The Court disagreed, and Judge Alsup ruled that “Google and the public were and remain free to write their own implementations to carry out exactly the same functions of all methods in question.”

Earlier, the jury summarily disposed of Oracle's patent claims and also found that, assuming one could get a copyright on an API, Google might have infringed (the jury failed to answer whether Google’s use was a legal fair use). All of this left open arguably the most important question: whether APIs could be copyrighted.  As we previously explained, the answer must be "no" under current law, and extending copyright to APIs would have a disastrous effect on interoperability, and, therefore, innovation. We are glad to report that Judge Alsup agreed.

The court clearly understood that ruling otherwise 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.

Judge Alsup, a coder himself, got it right when he wrote 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.” It's a pleasure to see a judge so fundamentally understand the technology at issue; indeed the first part of the opinion reads like an Introduction to Java class (and, to be certain, if Oracle appeals, Judge Alsup's lesson will do a fantastic job teaching the appeals court how Java works). It's that fundamental understanding that allowed Judge Alsup to explain:

That a system or method of operation has thousands of commands arranged in a creative taxonomy does not change its character as a method of operation. Yes, it is creative. Yes, it is original. Yes, it resembles a taxonomy. But it is nevertheless a command structure, a system or method of operation — a long hierarchy of over six thousand commands to carry out pre-assigned functions. For that reason, it cannot receive copyright protection — patent protection perhaps — but not copyright protection.

Judge Alsup’s opinion implicitly recognizes that the copyright laws, mostly recently overhauled in the 1970s, simply were not intended to cover claims like those made by Oracle in this case. Here, Oracle poured through 15 million lines of Android code searching for infringment, and found only nine lines (one function!) that had been copied from Java, a circumstance the Court found “innocuous and overblown.” Such functionality may be subject to patenting, which has a shorter life span and more opportunities to challenge its validity, but Oracle’s attempts to shoehorn its upatented APIs into copyright law were met with the proper rejection.

It's not all good news for innovation: in yet just another example of an intellectual property system gone awry, this lawsuit has likely already cost each side millions (if not tens of millions) of dollars (and that’s before damages). Those resources, including the person-hours, can and should be dedicated to developing new technologies and business models, not improving a few law firms' bottom lines. Oracle v. Google is just the latest in a long line of cases that ratchet up high-stakes litigation surrounding intellectual property rights – whether it be software patents or copyrights. This dangerous trend creates insurmountable barriers to entry and harms innovation. If this process has taught us anything, it is that this practice needs to stop. This is why EFF will continue to fight for an intellectual property system that has the breathing room to allow for innovation.

And in the meantime, developers everywhere can breathe a sigh of relief – this judge got it right.


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