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Google wins API copyright victory: What does this mean… | SignalWire

Google wins API copyright victory: What does this mean for developers?

APIs are a hot topic in the U.S. right now, where Oracle took Google to court over fair use of code. This all actually started ten years ago, when Oracle argued that Google had infringed on copyright by copying the structure and sequence of 37 Java APIs into Android operating systems. This year, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a formal ruling in favor of Google: these APIs are protected under fair use doctrine.

For reference, U.S. copyright law is meant to protect original works of authorship that are creative in nature – such as literary, musical, and artistic works, and sometimes, code – from unauthorized copying. But as the court noted, any original piece of literature or art is going to necessarily use things that have been used before. So where is that copyright line drawn? Meanwhile, fair use provisions allow certain copyrighted materials to be used in certain circumstances without permission.

Back in 2012, a court in California ruled that APIs are not subject to copyright, but just a couple of years later, Oracle appealed this ruling and won, leading to Java APIs becoming copyrightable. In 2016, a jury decided Google’s use of Java APIs was fair use, but Oracle appealed again, and by 2018 the Federal Circuit reversed this jury’s decision. This newest ruling at the highest level of the U.S. court system reverses the Federal Circuit’s opinion, determining that use of these Java APIs is legal under fair use provisions of copyright law.

Oracle’s software code in question was 11,000 lines – less than 1% of the total Java SE program – that Google used to build Android operating systems. In this case, the court said Google “included only those lines of code that were needed to allow programmers to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program.” This is a key ruling in clarifying how the law applies to APIs specifically. It’s not impossible for code to be protected under copyright any longer – the decision concluded that indeed, the code could be copyrightable, but was inextricably linked with uncopyrightable features, like the use of specific programming commands.

Google argued that this type of code is often used by developers freely, and that even if the code is copyrightable, that it should be covered by fair use provisions. When something serves a functional purpose, does it really make sense to let copyright prevent others from using it in the same functional method? Oracle and the dissent argued that the code was copyrightable and that the company should have been compensated for Google’s use of it. Even if certain standard bits of code would be exempt from this law, this Java code is anything but standard, and Google’s use of it was anything but fair. While the likes of Apple and Microsoft created their own rival products without Oracle’s “declaring code,” Google simply copied the API.

So which was the side of innovation? Well, both sides claimed to be. Google argued that stringent copyright laws would make things impossible for developers who would otherwise build new programs using shared code, slowing the creation of new products, and minimizing the utility of products they already own. Oracle argued a Google victory would discourage programmers from investing in software development because the resulting code could be used by anybody else without compensation. Additionally, since Google is a tech giant, Oracle argued the company could have afforded to pay in order to use the Java APIs and simply refused. Ironically, back in the 90’s, Oracle had stated that APIs shouldn’t be covered by copyright at all, and then accused Google of stealing chunks of Java code developed by Sun Microsystems, a company later acquired by Oracle.

The court emphasized the public benefits of creativity and competition that come from using code that’s already been produced. Many computer programs, particularly in the world of open source, are developed by recreating the functionality of APIs to allow for interoperability between different platforms. Legal experts had concerns about the implications of an Oracle victory, like the possibility of many developers and startups buckling under the threat of legal sanctions, as copyright holders would be able to use that copyright to prevent interoperability. Bad actors could have potentially picked up the rights to old software and filed claims against companies who built their software on what were assumed to be open standards. This ruling, however, sets precedent that APIs can be used freely to enable programs to work together.

The win was cited as a win for open source and free software. The ruling on fair use sided with the long-standing position of the free software movement that overall, APIs should be subject to fair use under copyright restrictions. In the end, pretty much everyone who wasn’t Oracle agreed with the ruling in favor of Google, even the guy who developed Java in the first place, James Gosling, who described the ruling as sanity prevailing. In a tweet, Gosling wrote, “It’s astonishing that this case even got started, much less that it ground on for more than a decade.” In any case, the court’s decision gives legal clarity to the next generation of developers.

So now Google is free to use Java APIs. The news is good for all developers: you won’t be hit with a copyright lawsuit by a company over using code in this way. Under fair use, you just can’t stop people from using APIs to build new programs. Current trends in software development which focus on improving interoperability will be allowed to continue.

If you’re interested in reading about what exactly the courts had to say about copyright and APIs, you can check out the public pdf released by the Supreme Court on the case.