To Copyright APIs, or Not to Copyright, That is the Question

Don Miller

APIs Explained

Some MFT Nation readers are undoubtedly familiar with an “application programming interface,” or API for short.  An API is defined as a “popular element of programs that enable inter-program communications.”  For those wanting a more concrete definition, click here to read a very clever way of explaining an API in “laymen’s terms.”

APIs have been around for a long time and there are many different types.  One website, which claims to be the “world’s largest API repository,” lists more than 12,000 APIs in its directory.  Another site describes some of the more common types:

Most operating environments, such as MS-Windows, provide an API so that programmers can write applications consistent with the operating environment.   Today, APIs are also specified by websites.  For example, Amazon or eBay APIs allow developers to use the existing retail infrastructure to create specialized web stores.  Third-party software developers also use Web APIs to create software solutions for end-users.

APIs are routinely used in the managed file transfer process to customize an organization’s flow of information, both internally and externally.  APIs can accommodate the exchange of data among all business units, from human resources to data center tasks to financial management.  In fact, your entire business can be connected using APIs to support data flows.

Sun Microsystems and Java APIs

Sun Microsystems created the Java programming language with the objective of allowing software to function regardless of the device on which they were used.  Another reason for creating Java was to make an open and free alternative to Microsoft, as this excerpt from a court filing shows:

Sun and its collaborators, including Oracle, recognized that they could not accomplish these goals by creating another proprietary platform, which Microsoft would dwarf.  Instead, they made Java open and free for anyone to use, to create a larger and more competitive market.  Sun’s strategy was to “build trust” with potential partners by declaring that all specifications would be “decided in the open” and that “[e]veryone [would] have equal access to them” so that they could then “go off and create [their] own products.”  As part of that strategy, Sun “made a lot of noise about open APIs” so as to “bring in as many people as possible . . . to the Java Community. . . . We wanted to basically build the biggest tent and invite as many people as possible.”

Sun’s strategy was largely successful.  The free and open Java language became the de facto industry standard, and Java became the world’s most popular programming language.

The Threat to Open and Free Java APIs:  Oracle v. Google Case

Things changed dramatically when Oracle acquired Sun.  Oracle wanted to transform Sun’s “big tent” atmosphere, where everyone was welcome and could sample anything they wished, into a “superstore” of sorts, where people are invited in only if they pay to use the Java APIs.  To effect this transformation, Oracle sued a high profile company, Google, for allegedly using Java APIs in violation of copyright laws.

The subject of the litigation was Google’s use of Java APIs in the Android OS.  Google copied 37 Java API packages, but wrote its own implementation of those Java APIs.  However, Google followed the same implementation format by using the same names, organization, and functionality as the Java APIs.

The case involves some arcane legal concepts, which I want to avoid.  Instead, take a look at this description from an industry analyst because it nicely summarizes the positions of the parties in an easily understandable manner:

“Basically, [Google] wants to codify the free use/exchange of APIs that has been common in the industry for decades,” said Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT.  “In essence, they argue that APIs are the software equivalents of industry standards, like nut and bolt thread sizes, that simplify and ease the process of application interaction and integration.

“Oracle, on the other hand, believes that the Java assets and IP it acquired as part of the Sun purchase entitles it to copyright ownership of those technologies and payment from any company or developer that uses them,” King told  “It’s not unlike a wealthy individual or company purchasing a piece of land that locals have always freely and commonly used, then fencing the property and exacting a toll on anyone who wishes to cross it.”

Each party has a won a battle in the court war.  Google won at the trial court level.  Oracle won at the appellate court level.  Now, Google has filed a petition with the Supremes (the U.S Supreme Court, not the Motown musical group) asking them to break the tie, so to speak.

What’s Really at Stake?

Last term, the Supremes rendered a decision which makes many software applications NOT patent-eligible.  Many in the IT community are hoping the Supremes will review the Oracle v. Google case and articulate guidelines for determining what software is eligible for copyright protection.

One IT group, the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF), believes the stakes of the Oracle v. Google case go well beyond the rights and liabilities of the two parties fighting it out in court.  According to its website, EFF is an activist organization which “uses the unique expertise of leading technologists, activists, and attorneys in our efforts to defend free speech online, fight illegal surveillance, advocate for users and innovators, and support freedom-enhancing technologies.”

EFF filed an amicus (aka, “friend of the court”) brief in the Supreme Court case, and the brief was signed by an impressive group of signatories, including five Turing Award winners, four National Medal of Technology winners, and numerous fellows of the Association for Computing Machinery, IEEE, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  The list also includes designers of computer systems and programming languages such as AppleScript, AWK, C++, Haskell, IBM S/360, Java, JavaScript, Lotus 1-2-3, MS-DOS, Python, Scala, SmallTalk, TCP/IP, Unix, and Wiki.

In its brief, EFF claims the appellate court decision “threatens the basic principles upon which our technology sector was built.”  EFF provides the following explanation for its dire prediction:

If it is allowed to stand, Oracle and others will have an unprecedented and dangerous power over the future of innovation.  API creators would have veto rights over any developer who wants to create a compatible program – regardless of whether she copies any literal code from the original API implementation.  That, in turn, would upset the settled business practices that have enabled the American computer industry to flourish, and choke off many of the system’s benefits to consumers.

EFF devotes the first part of its brief “highlighting a few of the technological developments that would not have occurred if the Federal Circuit’s misguided view had prevailed at the birth of modern computing.”  The EFF brief then transitions to showing how locking down APIs with copyright protection will have a chilling effect on the future of technology development.

Needless to say, the case could have huge implications for the technology industry.  We should know soon whether the Supremes will agree to hear the case.  Stay tuned to MFT Nation because we will keep you apprised of developments as and when they occur.