US backs up Oracle in latest API copyright issue against Google
In the latest on the ongoing Oracle vs Google API drama, the administration of US President Barack Obama has sided with Oracle, after the courts had asked for the President’s intervention in their Java copyright war.
Oracle has received support from the administration of US President Barack Obama over their continued battle with Google regarding the “copyrightability” of Java APIs. In this latest development, the dispute over intellectual property just got a leg-up from POTUS, who supports the idea that APIs can be protected by copyright.
The decision handed down by the Justice Department comes as a bit of a shock to the tech community, who were equally surprised when Oracle won their appeal of the original court decision in Google’s favour. Obama and co. were asked to intervene in January before a decision is made for the case to move on to the Supreme Court.
The crux of the case centres on Google’s “infringement” of Oracle’s patents of the Java APIs in Android. Google used names, declarations and header lines and thinks that their usage is justified due to their belief that the APIs are not copyrightable material.
This newest unfolding could mean more than just an upset for Google: the copyrighting of Oracle’s Java APIs could have significant effects on the tech industry as a whole, with an amicus curiae from a range of signatories sent to the Supreme Court urging them to abandon the appeal court decision in Oracle’s favour.
The 84-page document outlines the dangers of the APIs being “uncopyrightable”, with cited authorities ranging from federal cases to technology experts and articles:
When programmers can freely employ any interface without obtaining a costly license or risking a lawsuit, they can create compatible software that the interface’s original creator might never have envisioned or had the resources to develop. Copyrightable APIs would discourage this innovation by creating potential liability for the mere act of writing a compatible program.
Their argument stems from the belief that “if the Federal Circuit’s view had been accepted at the birth of modern computing, many important technologies would never have existed, and/or succeeded”.
The Federal Circuit’s decision poses a significant threat to the technology sector and to the public. 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.
Unfortunately, the US Government doesn’t share this sentiment, as Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli noted in the brief for the United States as amicus curiae that “the petition for a writ of certiorari should be denied”. The brief compares the APIs to the status of “literary works”, whereby they must be independently created by the author and contain a minimal degree of creativity.
Where the exception comes in is the idea of “fair use”, which permits certain uses of copyrighted work when the copyright enforced would “stifle the very creativity which [copyright] law is designed to foster”. This exception has been floated as how the court ruling should proceed with regards to Google’s use of the code.
Google believes the APIs aren’t copyrightable and are excused from the Copyright Act due to being a “process” or “method of operation”, which are exempt from copyright law. Declaring the code available under “fair use” would be seen by many to force developers and companies to take frequent risks in using common pieces of code.