Law and order and APIs

Early reaction from the Oracle-Google trial has proponents of open APIs trumpeting their victory, but most agree it's not over and could still have a profound impact on Web development.

[UPDATE] - The mysterious integration glue known as application programming interfaces, or APIs, became known to the wider public in recent years as Twitter and Facebook scored big with open APIs. Last month, APIs made news of a different kind, playing a central role at the Oracle-Google trial that took place in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

Database giant Oracle sued search leader Google over the latter’s use of Java in its Android smartphone operating system. Oracle gained control of Java with its purchase of Sun Microsystems in 2009, and thereafter claimed Google infringed on its intellectual property rights in its use of Java APIs. Oracle claimed both copyright and patent infringement occurred.

At trial’s end, U.S. District Judge William Alsup found that Google’s use of 37 Java APIs did not infringe upon Oracle copyrights, and that Google’s Android software made fair use of the Java APIs. Alsup did not hold that APIs were completely uncopyrightable, however.

Oracle immediately said it would appeal. The parties are expected to meet next week.

In his decision, Alsup called Oracle’s claims sweeping. “To accept Oracle’s claim would be to allow anyone to copyright one version of code to carry out a system of commands and thereby bar all others from writing their own different versions to carry out all or part of the same commands,” he wrote.

In one phase of the so-called “Goracle” trial, the jury found Google hadn't infringed on Oracle's patents. It did, however, find Google infringed on some of Oracle's Java API copyrights, but then deadlocked on the issue of whether Google’s Android version of Java constituted “fair use” of portions of copyrightable material. The trial judge then decided Google’s use here was fair use.

As so often happens in legal cases, the eventual outcome can be hard to project, and decisions along the way can be interpreted differently by different people. Alsup emphasized that his decision focused solely on the facts before him.

“A lot of people are talking as though the judge said APIs are not copyrightable,” said Jamie Nemiah, a Boston-based lawyer who works with high-tech companies on intellectual property and copyright issues. “What he said was, in this case, the elements of the APIs as used by Google were not copyrightable.”

This case of technology and law was complex, both for specialists and non-technologists. In Nemiah’s opinion, Alsup showed remarkable grasp of the elements of software and the law.

On appeals, another set of justices will review the material. The court of appeals could review Alsup’s finding on matters of law related to the copyrightability of APIs, said Nemiah. As well, the judge’s instructions to the jury could be reviewed.

While some aspects of software – applications and data - have been held to be copyrightable, the copyright coverage of APIs has been more limited over time. Alsup’s decision may ultimately confirm that trend.

Did Oracle overstep in the extent of its suit? Nemiah would not agree that this was the situation. He did suggest that Oracle’s arguments were ambitious.

“They were seeking an interpretation that was novel on the copyrightability of APIs. This was new, novel and it horrified many people in the software business, though some liked it very much,” said Nemiah.

“I’ve always understood that APIs were copyrightable but not patentable. I am with the judge,” said Richard Soley, a long-time integration programmer before taking joining the Object Management Group, steward of CORBA and other interoperability standards, where he now serves as CEO.

“I have been writing software since the mid-70s. It seems to me it is hard to patent a set of APIs,” said Soley. But, he added, such topics will continue to experience controversy.

“It seems the issues of intellectual property rights are far from solved,” said Soley.

Web is influential

The Web API appears on the upswing, and the closed API is on the decline, but whether this verdict means more open APIs remains to be seen.

Many modern improvements rely on open exchange of information. Patents and copyrights may play against this. Software is built on the improvements that came before it.

“You have to stand on the shoulders of giants,” said Jaime Ryan, partner solution architect with Layer 7, a SOA company that is now turning its attention to API management. "Public cloud APIs have benefited the industry. This couldn’t take place if the APIs were copyrightable.”

As generalized Web URL-friendly Representational State Transfer (REST) methods have become prominent in APIs, the trend toward open APIs has only accelerated.

“There are definitely elements that make [earlier] language APIs different from today’s Web APIs,” said Ryan. “The up and coming APIs are the simplest, most generic.”

The first “Goracle Trial” results were welcomed by champions of open systems such as Julie Samuels, staff attorney, the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “The potential for negative outcomes if we were able to copyright APIs is very significant,” she told SearchSOA.com. “It’s a threat to the interoperability that developers rely on. It is how users use the Internet."

“The open APIs we have seen, and the growth of the development community has been really important for our nation and for the Web,” Samuels said. “It’s important that we have policies that open up innovation.”

There’s little question that the World Wide Web has changed software development. The Web’s influence on software, including the “software law of APIs,” could be telling in years to come.

Yet Oracle and its leader, Larry Ellison, are determined to prevail. Ellison and company have bested others before, whether the legal battles revolved around a hostile merger or the rules of a yachting competition. In Jamie Nemiah’s words: “Larry Ellison is no quitter.”

This was first published in June 2012

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