In the ongoing case of Oracle America Inc. v. Google Inc., the U.S. Federal Circuit reversed the United States District Court for the Northern District of California's ruling that APIs are not protected by copyright. A recent filing in the case estimates copyright damages for Google's use of the Java API at $9 Billion.
Application programming interfaces (APIs) provide interoperability by specifying protocols and routines that can be relied upon by software developers. The use of a familiar API can accelerate the adoption of new technology, since developers can adapt old code or write new code more quickly.
The Android operating system, widely used in mobile devices, incorporates the Java API to encourage programmers to write applications (apps). This strategy has resulted in a popular and rapidly growing marketplace of third-party apps.
In 2005, Google Inc. bought Android, Inc. and tried to license the Java API from Sun Microsystems. When Google was unable to get a license, Google paid its developers to entirely rewrite every function in the Java API. To maintain interoperability, Google retained the organization (taxonomy) of the names of methods, classes, and interfaces in 37 packages supporting the API.
Oracle Inc. bought the rights to Java from Sun in 2010 and later sued under copyright as to the structure, sequence, and organization (SSO) of the methods, classes, and interfaces supporting the API. The United States District Court for the Northern District of California held the API taxonomy was a command structure hierarchy and not copyrightable. The judge remarked that the duplication of the command structure was necessary for interoperability.
In 2014 Oracle appealed to the Federal Circuit which overturned the lower court decision, creating the legal precedent that an API taxonomy was entitled to copyright protection. In 2015 the Supreme Court refused to review the decision, making the Federal Circuit decision the law of the land. Concerned observers have warned that declaring APIs copyrightable will have a profoundly negative impact on interoperability and will stifle open source implementations that adhere to APIs.
The case is currently back in District Court for the calculation of damages and possible "fair use" defenses. An analysis by Ocean Tomo, filed March 24, 2016 (available on pacer, case 3:10-cv-03561) listed damages caused by Google's infringement of the Java API:
|Measure of Monetary Recovery||Amount (in Billions)|
|Oracle's actual damages||$0.475|
|Profits Apportioned to Infringed Java Copyrights||$8.829|
This case should be a warning to all companies that intellectual property rights over software, even the mere organization of files supporting an API, must be thoroughly vetted. On the other hand, companies that own popular APIs may now have a new source of income available to them though copyright law.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.