Google garners support from tech industry in Supreme Court API copyright fight

Tech industry believes that if Google loses its fight against Oracle, it will open the door for a complete overhaul of many status quo software engineering practices and stall innovation.
Written by Campbell Kwan, Contributor

A group of tech companies and organisations have come forth with support for Google in its legal stoush against Oracle, a case that could determine the outlook of software development's future.

The Google-Oracle legal battle dates back over a decade, with the core issue being whether copyright laws bar the commonplace practice of software reimplementation -- the "process of writing new software to perform certain functions of a legacy product".   

Oracle won the most recent iteration of the legal fight, with the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruling that the functional elements of application programming interfaces (APIs) are subject to copyright. Since then however, Google has got the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) to reconsider Oracle's court victory.

Submitting a joint "friend of the court" brief on Monday -- a legal document that offers information that has a bearing on the issues of a court case -- Mozilla, Medium, Cloudera, Reddit, along with others, have pleaded for SCOTUS to reverse the Federal Court's decision and allow for APIs to continue to be free from copyright, or at least be available for fair use.

In the brief, the organisations argued that the Federal Circuit's decision stifles innovation and competition by "privileging powerful incumbents, creating artificial barriers to entry for new players, and deterring new software development". 

It was also argued that software interfaces are similar to online shopping websites as they generally follow a nearly identical "structure, sequence, and organisation" (SSO) which it said has become convention for software engineers.

"While a shopping site could attempt to come up with a totally new format for requesting billing and shipping data, common sense, technological standardisation, and economic efficiency have driven the industry to adopt an almost ubiquitous SSO that every user expects, understands, and completes with ease," the brief said. 

"Much as developers and users of e-commerce and other payments websites have come to expect and depend on standardised SSOs for checkout forms, both developers of operating systems and developers of applications for those operating systems expect and depend on standardised SSOs for API packages when programming."

In addition, it put forth that the Federal Circuit's decision has blurred -- and potentially put in jeopardy -- the copyright rules and precedents that have been used by software engineers for decades. According to the brief, software engineers generally understand they cannot copy someone else's application source code unless they have permission. 

Likewise, it said software engineers generally understand that they may reuse API package SSOs without a licence "without running afoul of copyright law". It labelled such practice as commonplace, as it said it enables developers to offer their apps to consumers on a range of existing platforms, operating systems, or browsers quickly and efficiently.

"Forcing application developers to rewrite their code for hundreds of new APIs in order to make it available on a new platform is not only burdensome and expensive, but risky, as it may create new errors or incompatibilities that will require extensive quality assurance and maintenance," the brief said. 

From a legal standpoint, the organisations submitted to SCOTUS that the Federal Circuit's decision -- that Oracle can enforce copyright on certain functional elements of Java SE -- should be reversed as they believe prior legal cases have created the precedent that functional elements of a work are not copyrightable.

It added that in the event that SCOTUS comes to find that copyright for APIs exist, companies should still be able to use APIs under the fair use doctrine -- a legal doctrine that allows for the use of copyrighted material without having to first acquire permission from the copyright holder -- as developers often use APIs for "reasonable" purposes such as following industry norms and best practices.

The final showdown between Google and Oracle is set to take place in March.  

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