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

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