Oracle API court ruling freaks people out

12 May 2014

ITEM: In case you missed it, last Friday a US appeals court ruled that Oracle has a legitimate copyright claim on Java APIs that Google uses for Android.

That decision reversed a previous ruling that APIs are an idea or concept (as opposed to a specific expression of it), and thus not subject to copyright protection.

For the moment, just how big a deal it is depends who you ask.

In a general sense, any decision affecting the legal status of APIs is important in that APIs are one of the key ingredients for enabling cloud-based services, as well as opening up networks to all kinds of new services. Both the telecoms and the IT sectors are moving towards a future of cloud, open networks and open APIs.

Critics say the decision to classify them as eligble for copyright protection throws a wrench in all of that. The Electronic Frontier Foundation in particular is very upset about it, claiming that the decision is “significant, and dangerous”:

When programmers can freely reimplement or reverse engineer an API without the need to negotiate a costly license or risk a lawsuit, they can create compatible software that the interface’s original creator might never have envisioned or had the resources to create. Moreover, compatible APIs enable people to switch platforms and services freely, and to find software that meets their needs regardless of what browser or operating system they use. The freedom to reimplement APIs also helps rescue “orphan” software or data—systems whose creators have either gone out of business or abandoned their product in the marketplace.

Today's decision puts all of that at risk, potentially handing Oracle and others veto power over any developer who wants to create a compatible program.

On the other hand, Alan Quayle, founder of Alan Quayle Business And Service Development and organizer of developer events like TADS (Telecoms Application Developer Summit) and TADHack, dismissed the hyperbole in an email: “[It's] legal crap, means nothing at the moment, just lawyers keeping themselves in jobs by pissing around in the legal system.”

If nothing else, the decision could be bad news for Google. But that depends on Google’s next step.

The appellate court sent the case back to the lower court to determine if Google’s use of the APIs count as “fair use” under copyright law.

Google could also appeal to the Supreme Court. Considering the particular appeals court in question has a poor track record when it comes to patent-related decisions (according to GigaOm), Google’s chances of winning are reasonably good.

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