Computer scientists say copyright on APIs will stifle innovation

The Supreme Court has been asked to reverse an appellate court decision in a dispute between Oracle and Google over Android

Computer scientists have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse an appeals court decision that Java APIs, the specifications that let programs communicate with each other, are copyrightable.

In a dispute between Oracle and Google, the 77 scientists argue that the free and open use of the application programming interfaces has been both routine and essential in the computer industry since its beginning, and depended on the "sensible assumption" that APIs and other interfaces were not copyrightable.

The scientists include five Turing Award winners, four National Medal of Technology winners, and a number of fellows of the Association for Computing Machinery, IEEE, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, according to digital rights group, Electronic Frontier Foundation, which filed the amici curiae (friends of the court) brief on Friday on behalf of the scientists.

Among the signatories are Vinton "Vint" Cerf, Internet pioneer and Google's chief Internet evangelist, and Ken Thompson, co-designer of the Unix operating system.

Oracle accused Google of infringing its copyrights and patents related to Java in its Android operating system. Google was specifically charged with copying the structure and organization of the Java application programming interface, in part to make it easier for developers, familiar with Java, to write programs for the mobile operating system.

Judge William Alsup of the District Court for the Northern District of California ruled in 2012 in favor of Google when it decided that the APIs were not copyrightable.

But the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled in May this year that the Java API packages could indeed be copyrighted, and asked the district court to find if Google's use could be considered as "fair use." The jury had previously deadlocked on fair use. Google has asked the Supreme Court to review the Federal Circuit decision, which has large implications on current practices in developing software, according to the scientists.

"When programmers can freely reimplement or reverse engineer an API 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," according to their brief.

The computer scientists gave instances of many key developments, including the IBM PC clone business, the C programming language and the Internet that benefited from the absence of copyrights on interfaces.

The freedom to reimplement APIs also helps developers rescue "orphan" software or data in systems that are no longer supported by their creators, according to the filing.

If APIs are copyrightable, then "API creators would have veto rights over any developer who wants to create a compatible program," regardless of whether any literal code from the original API implementation is copied, the filing said.

The computer scientists agree with Judge Alsup's order that an API is a 'system or method of operation,' which cannot be copyrighted under Section 102(b) of the Copyright Act. "In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work," according to section 102 (b).

Oracle could not be immediately reached for comment.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

Join the Good Gear Guide newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags Android OSGoogleintellectual propertycopyrightlegalOracleElectronic Frontier Foundation

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

John Ribeiro

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?