Computing experts call for repeal of copyrightable API decision

A petition filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation on behalf of 77 computing luminaries has called on the US Supreme Court to overturn a decision that ruled Oracle could copyright parts of the Java API.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

A reduction in the openness of APIs, and the ability for legal entities to copyright APIs, poses a significant threat to the technology sector and the public, a petition filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) on behalf of 77 computing luminaries has said.

Signed by Ken Thompson, Bjarne Stroustrup, Bruce Schneier, Guido van Rossum, Ray Kurzweil, Vint Cerf, Alan Kay, and Andrew Tridgell, among others, the petition (PDF) filed with the US Supreme Court said that the May ruling by the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Court that granted Oracle copyright protection over certain parts of Java is widely regarded as both insupportable and dangerous.

"If it is allowed to stand, Oracle and others will have an unprecedented and dangerous power over the future of innovation," the petition said. "API creators would have veto rights over any developer who wants to create a compatible program — regardless of whether she copies any literal code from the original API implementation. That, in turn, would upset the settled business practices that have enabled the American computer industry to flourish, and choke off many of the system's benefits to consumers."

The petition warns that because reverse engineering or making use of others' APIs would become a thing of the past, many software projects would become stranded on a single operating system, and even a particular version of an operating system, and any abandoned or orphaned software could not be reclaimed or reimplemented.

It warned that programming languages, cloud computing, and network protocols would all suffer under the ruling.

"API copyright would turn universal programming languages like C into narrow dialects, usable only on a specific operating system," the petition said.

"If interface specifications were copyrightable, Berners-Lee could have used copyright to determine which software and hardware manufacturers could use the web. But as an open system, the web became universal."

Cloud computing was cited in the petition as the prime example of how APIs are used to create new products and push computing forward, and avoid the lock-in on users to one cloud provider.

"Cloud services exist because their creators could build on the openness of the BIOS and other APIs," the petition said. "IBM enforced copyright on the BIOS source code, and would certainly have used copyright to control reimplementations of the BIOS API if the law allowed. It did not, which meant the BIOS API became a kind of shared resource.

"Using this shared resource, cloud service providers created a new service with a new API that is quickly becoming a compatibility standard in their field. Only time will reveal what new innovations will take advantage of widespread, compatible cloud services."

Brought down in May this year, a three-judge Federal Circuit panel overturned a May 2012 jury decision that said Google did not infringe on Oracle's patents when the search giant included 37 particular Java APIs in Android. A decision earlier in May 2012 found that Google had infringed on Oracle's copyright, but the jury could not agree on whether it constituted fair use.

Last month, Google asked the US Supreme Court to consider overturning the May decision.

In a statement released by the EFF along with the petition, it called the May ruling "bad law, and bad policy".

"For decades, computer scientists and the courts have all understood that copyright doesn't protect APIs," EFF special counsel Michael Barclay said.

"We hope that the Supreme Court will review this case and reverse the Federal Circuit's misguided opinion, which upended decades of industry practice and threatens the basic principles upon which our technology sector was built."

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