Google v. Oracle: What the Verdict Could Mean for APIs

By | May 11, 2012

The partial verdict in the Oracle-Google trial found that Google had infringed on Oracle's copyright of 37 APIs. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on the key question of whether Google's use of the APIs fell under the fair use provision of copyright law. Under this provision, there can be no claim for damages. While a mistrial is a possibility, the trial has focused on this question, and the judge has denied an Oracle request for a ruling rejecting the Google defence.

The question of whether copyright applies to APIs is critical for programmers. Even small businesses generate custom software using publicly available APIs for ideas and guidance. A CNET article on the trial details the legal issues. Oracle argued that APIs are a creative work similar to poetry and that Google's commercial use of the APIs negated their fair use defense. Judge William Alsup didn't agree. He said APIs contained methods and standardized names that are purely functional and can't be copyrighted. For a particular function, "If you want to have a function, that is the only way to write it," he said.

Oracle countered that it does not claim copyright of the individual methods or functions but rather of the overall arrangement, structure, sequence, and organization of the APIs. While this argument sidesteps the objections raised by Judge Alsup, it also substantially weakens the nature of the copyright. It makes APIs more like a recipe. You can copyright the overall text of the recipe but anyone can use the same ingredients to produce the same kind of cake--or even a better one. That is Google's case. Google admits that it looked at the APIs in question but says it only used parts that can't be copyrighted to produce better software.

The issue is relevant to midsize businesses that have programmers writing custom application software. Java is a popular language and programmers have access to some of the same APIs that the Google employees looked at before creating Android. If these APIs can be copyrighted and are the intellectual property of Oracle, Google may only be the first target of Oracle's campaign to enforce licensing. As Oracle lead counsel Michael Jacobs said in reference to Google using some Java API features, "If Google can do it, so can the next guy." Jacobs argued that recognizing fair use would be devastating to Oracle's Java business model. Such a business model implies the possibility of future revenue generation from licensing.

According to the CNET article, the questions Judge Alsup posed to Oracle and Google indicate he is leaning toward ruling that APIs cannot be copyrighted. That would put Google and many other programmers back where they thought they were before Oracle raised this question.

This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

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