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Oracle appeal raises new threat to API use

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In early 2012, Google(s goog) swept Oracle in what the presiding judge described as the “World Series” of intellectual property trials, leading the court to declare that Oracle(s orcl) could not assert copyright over Java APIs, aka application programming interfaces.

Now, a rematch is underway in Washington, D.C. where an appeals court is indicating that it could rule in Oracle’s favor and, in doing so, pour legal cement on a basic building block of web architecture.

If you’re unfamiliar with the case, the key issue is whether or not APIs —  structural pieces of software that let different programs talk to each other — qualify for copyright protection. In the original trial, US District Judge William Alsup, who is well-versed in California tech issues, said that APIs are not eligible for protection on the grounds that they are a basic idea, not a form of creative expression.

During a Washington hearing on Wednesday, however, Bloomberg reports that Circuit Judge Kathleen O’Malley stated that, even though Java is free for anyone to use, that status does not negate the ability to obtain copyright protection.

This will please Oracle, whose lawyer told the court that Google “took the most important, the most appealing” part of Oracle’s Java language to build its Android operating system.

Google countered that it only used the basic command structure, on which it laid 15 million lines of original code.

If Oracle succeeds in the appeal, it will obtain a level of control over software construction that would be akin to a construction firm saying it had exclusive rights to a Phillips head screwdriver.

The D.C. appeals court, which has been criticized in the past as a “rogue” forum for intellectual property law, has yet to rule. If it does declare that Oracle owns the APIs, there is still the possibility that the case could be remanded for a jury to find if Google’s use of them amounted to a permitted “fair use.”

A fair use ruling could ensure a key software tool remains open to all but would be less effective than maintaining the original decision that Java API’s are not copyrightable in the first place.

4 Responses to “Oracle appeal raises new threat to API use”

  1. Robert Watkins

    When first invented, the Phillips-head screwdriver has patented and exclusively controlled by the Phillips Screw Company, which later sold the rights to the Ford Motor Company, which then exclusively controlled the Phillips-head screwdriver (and screw) until the patents expired.

    The Phillips Screw Company and the Ford Motor Company used their exclusive rights to license out the right to manufacture screws and screwdrivers, in return for money.

    This turned out not to be a disaster.

    Maybe a better analogy is needed?

    • Apocalypse

      Nope. Another way to look at is that you can´t write a book and than sue anyone who is using the same words than you in his chapter headers. Actually not even that, but it close enough I guess.

      Its not about adding your own stuff to the work of someone else, API implementations are already protected via copyright. It is literally the interface that oracle claims the copyright for, after google has proven that they indeed created their own implementations of that API.

  2. farrellclan

    Another way to look at APIs is this: If APIs are proprietary then users who paid for a tool can’t use it in conjunction with any tool not bought from the first tool supplier. Net effect is that content built with the first tool becomes inaccessible to the user unless… the user buys an updated tool. In effect, the content builder becomes a share cropper on his own farm.