The Battle: Oracle v. Google
A federal court has reportedly ruled in favour of Oracle, and ordered Google to pay the company for its use of the Java API in Android, drawing criticism from various legal scholars.
APIs are one of the most important tools in modern programming, allowing third-party services to pull information automatically from central services like Google, Facebook and Twitter. (Apps like Tweetdeck, for instance, get your tweets by calling on Twitter’s API.) In this case, Google the Android OS on top of a modified version of Java, but kept Java’s API to make it easier for programmers to write for Android. Since many coders were already familiar with the quirks of Java’s API, the decision gave them a head start in writing programs for Android — but from the beginning, Oracle saw that privilege as belonging to them . In May of 2012, a district court ruled that copyrighting the calls would simply tie up “a utilitarian and functional set of symbols,” and gave Google free rein on the API. Oracle appealed the ruling, and two years later, a federal court has overturned. The next step is the Supreme Court, but it could be years before the issue is finally settled.
“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.