What Google's API copyright win over Oracle means

The experts agree this Supreme Court decision was a victory for developers and open-source software.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

If you listen to Oracle, then the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) deciding that application programming interfaces (API) can't be strictly copyrighted because fair use applies was an awful decision. Google, the victor, disagrees. But, while this was a major win for Google, it was an even bigger win for all software developers -- yes, even Oracle's -- and for open API and open-source software in particular. 

Oracle had argued for over a decade 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 that an API is like an alphabet or a grammar. They're the fundamental elements used to create programs.  SCOTUS, led by Justice Stephen Breyer, agreed with Google's argument. Almost everyone not on an Oracle payroll agreed as well.

That includes James Gosling. You know, the guy who created Java in the first place? Gosling tweeted: "Sanity has prevailed: The Supreme Court sides with Google in Oracle's API copyright case. It's astonishing that this case even got started, much less that it ground on for more than a decade."

GitHub Head of Developer Policy Mike Linksvayer was "thrilled that the Court upheld developer interests in this dispute. At multiple points in the decision, the Court considered the public interest in allowing developers to more easily transfer their skills from project to project, job to job."

Chris Wright, Red Hat's CTO and a top Linux maintainer, liked this decision as well. "Words I never expected to see in a SCOTUS opinion: 'Consider in more detail just what an API does.' Important precedent set in the decision in Oracle v Google. While I hoped for a stronger ruling, 'fair use' is a win for developers and innovation."

It's true that SCOTUS left the question of whether APIs can be copyrighted at all open. But, with the board scope that SCOTUS gave fair use, that hardly matters. After all, as Justice Breyer wrote in the decision: 

Google copied portions of the Sun Java API precisely, and it did so in part for the same reason that Sun created those portions, namely, to enable programmers to call up implementing programs that would accomplish particular tasks. But since virtually any unauthorized use of a copyrighted computer program (say, for teaching or research) would do the same, to stop here would severely limit the scope of fair use in the functional context of computer programs. Rather, in determining whether a use is 'transformative,' we must go further and examine the copying's more specifically described 'purpose[s]' and 'character.' 17 U. S. C. §107(1).

As Laurence Tribe, the Carl M. Loeb University Professor at the Harvard Law School, tweeted: "Google's win over Oracle with respect to fair use of the Java API software interface was a well-reasoned victory over an outmoded reading of the copyright laws."

Michael Barclay, an Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) special counsel, declared: "In a win for innovation … This decision gives more legal certainty to software developers' common practice of using, reusing, and re-implementing software interfaces written by others, a custom that underlies most of the internet and personal computing technologies we use every day."

This is also a win for open-source and free software developers. "Today's ruling puts the Supreme Court's interpretation of fair use squarely on the side of the free software movement's position that declarations in API definitions should not be restricted by copyright licenses, and are subject to fair use," said Mishi Choudhary, the legal director at the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC)
Eben Moglen, Columbia Law School Professor of Law and one of the architects of the Gnu Public License (GPL), agreed with Choudhary. 

The Supreme Court's ruling in Google v. Oracle affirms that US copyright law's fair use defense is fully consistent with the free-software movement's long-standing position that API declarations should not be subject to copyright license restrictions, and may be freely used for interoperation and the independent re-implementation of software APIs.  From the amicus brief I first filed on FSF's behalf in Lotus v. Borland [the famous case which found that Lotus 1-2-3's command menu hierarchy couldn't be copyrighted]  in 1996, this has always been our position and was our position in the amicus brief we filed in the present case. Today's decision is a welcome step to provide clarity on this point after decades of uncertainty and is very gratifying to all who believe in software freedom.

But what if you do want to protect your API's intellectual property? J. Michael Keyes, a partner at Dorsey & Whitney, worries that you'd face many future arguments and claims regarding the application of fair use to software-related claims: "We will see more copying, more cases, and more claims of fair use."

Given that, John Ferrell, a founding partner at Carr/Ferrell, thinks you should look for other ways to protect your IP.  "The practical takeaway from this case is that companies wanting to keep ownership of their APIs should consider patents instead of copyright protection."

The most pragmatic and practical result from this case's conclusion is that developers can now use APIs without worry. Unless expressly closed and protected, APIs are now free and open and that's a big win both for programmers and for the users who will benefit from their software.

Related Stories:

Editorial standards