In what might later be seen as a landmark decision by a Federal Circuit Court, Google lost its case against Oracle, the company who owns Java. By making Android applications programmable via Java’s programming interface, the court ruled, Android violated Oracle’s copyright.
Android uses Java’s API, or application programming interface, to allow developers to make applications for the mobile operating system. An API is basically a specified way for different kinds of programs to speak to each other. If you decided you want to print this page, your browser would user your printer’s API to communicate that command to the printer. After all, your browser and your printer software were made by very different people and using different programming languages.
What Google really did was take Java’s API and rewrite it to make more sense for Android. While the Java API allows other software to “talk” to Java, the Android rewrite does the same, but for the purpose of speaking to Android instead. The court ruled two different things in this case:
- An API can be copyrighted.
- Google’s version of the API is similar enough to the original Java API that it would constitute copyright infringement, so long as number 1 is true.
As many concerned observers have argued, there are some serious costs to society when you make APIs copyrightable. The use and adaptation of APIs has played a huge role in innovation and competition throughout the brief history of computing. When an API cannot be used by a small startup a la Android, it is very difficult to compete against well-established rivals. The Electronic Frontier Foundation says, “excluding APIs from copyright protection has been essential to the development of modern computers and the Internet.”
In an amicus brief filed in the case by EFF and a bevy of the world’s top computer scientists, they stated the following:
…the widespread availability of diverse, cheap, and customizable personal computers owes its existence to the lack of copyright on the specification for IBM’s Basic Input/Output System (BIOS) for the PC.
The uncopyrightable nature of APIs spurs the creation of software that otherwise would not have been written. 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. Without the compatibility enabled by the open nature of APIs, consumers could be forced to leave their data behind when they switch to a new service.
It goes on to argue that if it were to make the decision that it ultimately did make, the Court would be undoing one of the cornerstones of law that made the computer-enabled information revolution possible.
Google could end up faring okay in this particular case, as the Circuit Court referred the case down to its original, lower court to decide whether Google’s use constitutes Fair Use. Fair Use is a set of standards used to determine whether certain copyright violations should not be considered as such. For instance, I can stick a Google logo in this article since I am talking about Google in a critical manner. If I had done it to pretend that I am Google, that would not be Fair Use.
Regardless of the Fair Use ruling, the current state of affairs is worrisome for many advocates because the current legal precedent can now enable any API developer to veto the use of its API by a competitor, or at least demand hefty payments. While it does act to protect the initial investments of the companies who develop APIs, consumers will primarily notice a large decrease in selection of viable alternative software and a just-as-large decrease in cross-compatibility in future software.
Google is no angel when it comes to copyright, by any stretch. The American copyright system, as it applies to software, is a mess and everyone is trying to take advantage. This ruling is notable not for its effect on Google, but how it will affect all future software development and competition in the marketplace.