The Supreme Court’s eight justices on Wednesday appeared skeptical of Google’s argument that utility programming interfaces (APIs) aren’t protected by copyright regulation. The excessive courtroom was listening to oral arguments in Google’s decade-long authorized battle with Oracle. Oracle argues that Google infringed its copyright within the Java programming language when it re-implemented Java APIs for use by Android app builders.
The stakes within the case are excessive for Google, which might owe Oracle billions of dollars in damages. Extra importantly, an Oracle win might reshape how copyright regulation treats APIs, giving incumbents the ability to lock out rivals who wish to construct suitable software program.
For many years previous to Oracle’s lawsuit, most individuals within the software program business assumed that APIs could not be copyrighted. That meant a software program firm might re-implement the APIs of a competitor’s product with a purpose to allow software program, designed to work with the competitor’s product, to work with its personal.
A win for Oracle would name that into query. That may not solely generate further work for copyright attorneys, it might result in a world the place software program compatibility issues crop up extra typically in on a regular basis life. It might additionally instantly have an effect on the livelihoods of pc programmers, who may discover they’re extra ceaselessly compelled to be taught new programming languages or different software program instruments after they swap jobs.
It is all the time dangerous to extrapolate from Supreme Court oral arguments. Typically justices ask one get together more durable questions however rule for that aspect anyway. Nonetheless, after listening to Wednesday’s arguments, I had bother imagining a five-justice majority accepting Google’s argument that API’s can’t be copyrighted. If Google wins, it appears more likely to be on narrower grounds—grounds that will open the door to extra API copyright lawsuits sooner or later. Frankly, there appears to be a good probability that Oracle will prevail.
Google’s lawyer “did an abysmal job”
Within the mid-2000s, Google knew that it will want a lot of builders to construct apps for its forthcoming Android platform. To hurry up the method, Google re-implemented the Java programming language slightly than growing a new programming language from scratch. Google wrote new code to execute Java packages in keeping with the precise specs of Solar’s official Java software program (Oracle subsequently acquired Solar). This allowed hundreds of current Java programmers to change into Android builders with out having to be taught a new language.
To re-implement Java, Google wanted to repeat the names and argument forms of capabilities like java.lang.Math.max. In any other case a Java program that used these capabilities would not work on Google’s working system. Part 102(b) of the Copyright Act says that nobody can copyright an “idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery.” Google concluded that capabilities like Math.max are “methods of operation” as a result of programmers “operate” the Java platform by invoking them. Therefore, Google did not buy a license from Solar, resulting in a lawsuit a few years later.
That is a widespread apply within the software program business. Oracle, for instance, re-implemented Amazon’s S3 API in order that prospects who constructed software program for Amazon’s cloud platform might simply swap to Oracle’s rival cloud platform.
Oracle’s technique all through the 10-year authorized battle has been to basically deny that there’s something particular about APIs. In Oracle’s view, an API specification—basically simply a listing of operate names and argument varieties—is pc code that may be copyrighted simply as every other code can. Oracle claims that if the courts strip API specs of copyright safety, attorneys might use the identical arguments to weaken copyright protections for any pc program.
Justice Samuel Alito raised this concern in his first query to Google’s lawyer, Thomas Goldstein.
“I’m concerned that under your argument, all computer code is at risk of losing protection under 102(b),” Alito mentioned. “How do you square your position with Congress’ express intent to provide protection for computer codes?”
Arguably Goldstein’s most vital activity right here—and all through Wednesday’s argument—was to persuade justices that there was an vital distinction between APIs and different code and that this distinction had authorized implications.
“He did an abysmal job,” Cornell College authorized scholar James Grimmelmann advised Ars in a Wednesday telephone interview. “At the level of nuance he was willing to get into, his case was a loser. The only way to make it stick is to be nuanced about what it means to declare code.”