The case examined whether computer language that connects programs - known as application programming interfaces, or APIs - can be copyrighted. At trial in San Francisco, Oracle said Google’s Android trampled on its rights to the structure of 37 Java APIs.
U.S. District Judge William Alsup ruled that the Java APIs replicated by Google were not subject to copyright protection and were free for all to use. The Federal Circuit disagreed on Friday, ruled for Oracle and instructed the lower court to reinstate a jury’s finding of infringement as to 37 Java API packages.
The unanimous Federal Circuit panel ordered further proceedings before Alsup to decide whether Google’s actions were protected under fair use.
The Federal Circuit disagrees with the district court and Google (the district court had basically just adopted Google’s fundamentally flawed non-copyrightability argument, which is why it just got overruled) on the point in time at which the theory of a “merger” (of idea and expression) has to be determined. Google argued that it had only one way to write those API declarations -- but that’s because it chose to be similar to Java in certain (and not all) respects. But this way Google limited its own choice. It could have create completely new APIs for Android. The question in a copyright case is, however, not whether the copyist had choices. It’s whether the creator of the copied material had options. And Sun’s engineers (Java was developed by Sun, which was acquired by Oracle in 2010) had plenty of choices. The Java APIs were and are creative and original. And that’s why they are protected. Otherwise something could be protected by copyright when it’s written and then lose copyright protection later because someone choose to copy -- that would be absurd.
Within the context of the “smartphone IP wars”, yesterday’s appellate opinion in Oracle v. Google was spectacular. An unprecedented comeback. Oracle now has more legal leverage over Google than anyone else, such as Apple, has ever had, even at this stage, where things may still take a couple of years before an injunction issues (and, of course, there is some uncertainty remaining with “fair use”, though the Federal Circuit made certain limits of that defense clear as well).
Both Sega and the subsequent Sony v. Connectix case -- fair use and not copyrightability cases -- did not establish an interoperability exception to copyrightablity, as the Federal Circuit clarified but Google’s supporters still don’t want to recognize. I already addressed that one two years ago. The problem with reading Sega (which Sony is based on) as holding anything related to compatibility to be non-copyrightable is that this is not even an obiter dictum. It’s simply not stated at all unless one takes a few words out of context.
In Sega, interoperability was considered a laudable goal. Yes, it is. That fact weighs in favor of fair use. In that case, it did. Rightly so. So if you only do a few intermediate copies for yourself and you copy 20-25 bytes (a mere identifier), and that’s what it takes to bring more games to consumers for a platform they’ve purchased, that may be fine. In that case, it was. Rightly so. But the Ninth Circuit (the West Coast circuit) didn’t say that anything relating to compatibility -- which would require some very complex line-drawing if it was the law (which it is not) -- is by definition non-copyrightable.
Wow, so Google actually considered rebuilding Android on .NET and C# back in 2005.
See also API Copyrightability.
Update (2014-05-12): Robert McMillan:
Predictably, Google is unhappy. “We’re disappointed by this ruling, which sets a damaging precedent for computer science and software development, and are considering our options,” Google said in an emailed statement. But open source developers aren’t too happy about it either. In a post to the online discussion site Hacker News, Bryan Cantrill, the CTO at cloud provider Joyent, called the idea that APIs could be copyrighted a “perverted and depraved principle.”
“An API is a description of what the software is going to do,” Cantrill tells us. “You can think of the API as the plot as opposed to the novel. If you’re saying that that abstract notion of the plot is copyrightable, then everything is derivative.”
According to Cantrill, Oracle shouldn’t exactly be crowing about its court victory. Cantrell works on an open-source version of the Solaris operating system, and he says that Oracle copied some of his APIs into its Oracle Solaris product without permission.
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