Ten years ago, Oracle claimed that Google had infringed Oracle’s copyright, by copying the “structure, sequence and organization” of 37 Java application programming interfaces (APIs) into Android. Google replied for its part that an API is like an alphabet or a grammar. These are the fundamentals used to create programs. Today, the United States Supreme Court finally concluded what programmers have always known: APIs cannot be copyrighted.
After a hearing in the Oracle vs Google case in October 2020, the Supreme Court ruled on April 5 that Google can legally use Oracle’s Java API code to build Android.
In its decision, the Supreme Court ruled that “Google’s copy of the API to reimplement a user interface, taking only what is necessary to allow users to put their talents to work for a new and transformative program , constituted fair use of this material “. This decision overturns an earlier federal decision, which found that Google’s use of the Java API infringed Oracle copyright.
Specifically, Oracle claimed that Google illegally copied around 11,500 lines of Java code, which defined 37 separate APIs. Oracle claims that Google APIs, because of their “structure, sequence and organization”, were part of Oracle’s Java copyright.
Now Google is free to use Java APIs in Android. And, more importantly for the entire software development industry, companies will not be able to claim copyright in APIs in general. Many feared that a different court ruling would trigger a wave of patent troll lawsuits, which would have passed off technology patent lawsuits for mere fines.
A nuanced judgment
While the Supreme Court sided with Google on this case, the Court also said: “In order not to decide more than what is necessary to resolve this case, the Court assumes that the copied lines can be protected by copyright and focuses on Google’s use of these lines was “fair use”. ”
So, rather than ruling that APIs cannot be copyrighted, the Supreme Court ruled that Google was right because of the “fair use provision of copyright law. author… The nature of the work in question favors fair use. ”
Or, as Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer said in the October hearing, “You didn’t have to have a QWERTY keyboard on typewriters in the beginning.… But my God, if you let somebody have copyright in it now, they would control all typewriters, which really has nothing to do with copyright. ”
APIs, not works of art
As William Alsup, a judge of the United States District Court in Northern California, and one of the few judges who was also a programmer, wrote in favor of Google years ago: an API is simply “a long hierarchy of over six thousand pre-assigned orders For this reason, it cannot enjoy copyright protection – perhaps patent – but not copyright. ” Oracle lost its lawsuit over the Java patent issue a long time ago.
Historically, few advocates of API copyright protection. There is nothing creative about an API. This simply explains how external programs can work with the program or service. Uri Sarid, CTO of software integration company MuleSoft, wrote about this case several years ago. “APIs are quite useful, like how an ATM works: swipe your card here, enter your code there, select from a menu and expect money in return,” Sarid explained. “How could this be copyrighted?”
Even Microsoft, despite Google’s competitor, agreed with Google. In its amicus curiae filed with the Supreme Court, Microsoft said programmers rely on “sharing, modifying and improving previously developed code to create new products and develop new features.” Without the ability to reuse functional code to create new things, “innovative development will be compromised”. Indeed.
So while this decision does not directly rule out that APIs may be copyrighted, it clearly indicates that, under the “fair use” doctrine, you cannot prevent other developers from using freely your APIs to create new programs. In other words, programmers can continue to use APIs in their projects as they did decades ago.