Consider for a moment, the abstract idea of a shovel. It’s a tool with a long end for holding, and a sharp end for digging. In the world of computer science, we think of APIs, or “application program interfaces” as a similar “tool” in developing software. They specify what things a certain part of software is going to do. Like a shovel should dig. Is the idea of a shovel copyrightable? I should think not. Maybe the designs for the first shovel, where a cave-man drew some paintings after he took a stone and attached it to a stick. Jokes aside, it’s important to look at case law in determining future legislation over copyright.
In this case, Oracle has sued Google over copying some of its Java programming language APIs in Google’s Android platform. Google had chosen Java for its familiarity, and very good specifications when it came to APIs. This makes it easier for new developers who decide to develop for Android. When using the Java platform on a desktop computer, these APIs are implemented by Oracle themselves, in a common code base. Google built upon these API specifications, so that users of the Android development kit would already be familiar with what certain parts of the core library would do. An example is a list. You can add things to it, look things up, and remove things. This describes only the use of such a list, not how it’s implemented in computer code.
The controversy here, lies in whether APIs are even copyrightable. It’s already debatable whether or not computer code itself is copyrightable. Currently under US law, it’s treated as any other written expression of ideas. An API is one level higher, containing the idea of a certain programming concept, like a list. Almost every major computer language has an implementation of a list. In fact, it could be argued that Oracle isn’t even the first person to come up with some of the APIs it claims are copyrighted by them.
With my knowledge of copyright law, it is for certain that abstract ideas are not copyrightable. You cannot seek copyright protection for your idea of a movie that you want to create. If you go ahead and write the script, that is certainly copyrighted. Programming APIs are, truthfully, in such a category as abstract concepts. The implementation of the list API Oracle includes with Java’s standard code libraries is certainly copyrighted, as this is computer code someone at Oracle has written, to actually create a “list” that can be used programmatically.
With this in mind, here’s where the absurdity comes in. The federal court had originally found that programming APIs are not copyrightable. This is what any sound judge might imagine, as an API is an abstract concept. This decision however, was then overturned by an appellate court, which rendered the first federal decision useless.
Not only did this strike a huge economic blow for Google, potentially costing an upwards of 1 billion dollars, but it could have a significant impact on how computer science can thrive in business. This could open up a huge amount of frivolous lawsuits involving companies and their APIs, which may or may not be unique to them.
Google is now seeking a fair use defense, and we (computer scientists) are waiting intently on the result.
Dan Hunter, “Intellectual Property” Oxford University Press, 2012
Dan Levine, “Google asks Supreme Court to decide Oracle copyright fight” Reuters, Oct 8, 2014, accessed May 18, 2015
Julie Bort, “Google: This Oracle Lawsuit Could Damage The Whole Software Industry” Business Insider, May 9, 2014, accessed May 18, 2015