The Software Industry Rallies Behind Google To Save Programming
Written by Mike James   
Wednesday, 15 January 2020

The Oracle v Google lawsuit has been going on for more than ten years. Now the Supreme Court is close to delivering a final verdict and the software industry finally seems to have woken up to the dangers of it finding in favor of Oracle.

 

Oracle brought a lawsuit against Google's use of Java in the Android system. The saga is long and ongoing and you can read  the summaries listed at the end if you want to know the details. The main issue is that Oracle maintains that APIs are copyrightable and currently this is the current verdict of the court and is the question that the Supreme Court has been asked to decided for the final time.

If you talk to people who know something about software or copyright you will find a range of opinions. The law experts seem to settle on the side of APIs being copyrightable. The software people who know what an API is mostly think that this is crazy and if it is the case then the software industry is going to be a much different place after 2020.

Put as simply as I can manage, an API is a specification for a set of functions that you can call to get a job done. For example, the Java String class has a method called length and its signature is:

public int length()

In the Java string package you will find the code that implements finding the length of a string and this is subject to copyright. So if you want to have your own string class you will probably want to re-implement the length method without re-using the code in the official package - and it's going to have the same signature because anything else would be crazy and would lead to problems of inter-operability. If the verdict is given in favour of Oracle, then you won't be able to do this as APIs - the specification not the implementation - will be subject to copyright. As an API is just a specification for function calls, if they are copyright thing rapidly get out of hand. Any functional specification, such as a BIOS or any code library, is going to be copyright at the specification level and re-implementation is going to be impossible.

This is as serious as if some company had copyrighted the for loop or the if statement. Actually if some copyright troll can find an API with a for and if method they might well have copyrighted the fundamentals of programming!

Until recently it seemed that, with a few notable exceptions, other software companies and organizations were keeping quiet on the issue. Perhaps there was a certain pleasure to be had in watching Google squirm - who knows. Now there seems to be a realization that a win for Oracle is a loss for all of them.

The first to be mentioned is the EFF which is one of the few organizations that has made it clear that copyright on APIs is a bad thing from the very start of the issue:

"The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) today asked the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that functional aspects of Oracle’s Java programming language are not copyrightable, and even if they were, employing them to create new computer code falls under fair use protections."

Mozilla organized a posse of organizations to stand behind the general idea that APIs are free, including Medium, Cloudera, Creative Commons, Shopify, Etsy, Reddit, OSI, Wikimedia. IBM and Microsoft have also filed their opposition to API copyright.

What is even stranger is that if Oracle wins it might well have problems of its own with its free reuse of APIs - AWS cloud API, for example, which it cloned for its own cloud services.

It seems that literally no-one gains from APIs being copyright, apart from the lawyers that is. The problem seems to be that the lawyers don't really get the nature of software.

 anndroidlaw

More Information

https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/18/18-956/128321/20200113120624750_18-956%20Amici%20Curiae.pdf

EFF Asks Supreme Court To Reverse Dangerous Rulings About API Copyrightability and Fair Use

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Last Updated ( Wednesday, 15 January 2020 )