APIs, or application programming interfaces, make the digital world go round. Working behind the scenes to define the parameters by which software applications communicate with each other, APIs underpin every kind of app — social media, news and weather, financial, maps, video conferencing, you name it. They are critically important to virtually every enterprise organization and industry worldwide.
Given APIs’ ubiquity and importance, it’s understandable that all industry eyes were on the U.S. Supreme Court’s April 5 ruling in Google LLC v. Oracle America Inc. This 11-year-old case addressed two core questions: Whether copyright protection extends to an API and whether the use of an API in the context of creating a new computer program constitutes fair use. Google lawyers had called it “the copyright case of the decade.”
I was one of 83 computer scientists — including five Turing Award winners and four National Medal of Technology honorees — who signed a Supreme Court amicus brief stating their opposition to the assertion that APIs are copyrightable while supporting Google’s right to fair use under the current legal definition.
We explained that the freedom to reimplement and extend existing APIs has been critical to technological innovation by ensuring competitors could challenge established players and advance state of art. “Excluding APIs from copyright protection has been essential to the development of modern computers and the internet,” the brief said.
The Supreme Court ruling was a mixed bag that many observers are still parsing. In a 6-2 decision, justices sided with Google and its argument that copying 11,500 lines of code from Oracle’s Java in the Android operating system was fair use. Great! At the same time, though, the court appeared to be operating under the assumption that APIs are copyrightable.
“Given the rapidly changing technological, economic, and business-related circumstances, we believe we should not answer more than is necessary to resolve the parties’ dispute,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the majority. “We shall assume, but purely for argument’s sake, that [the code] “falls within the definition of that which can be copyrighted.”
While it may take years to understand the ruling’s impact, it’s essential to keep dissecting the issue now, as APIs only continue to become more critical as the pipes behind every internet-connected device and application.
The legal saga began when Google used Java APIs in developing Android. Google wrote its implementation of the Java APIs. Still, to allow developers to write their programs for Android, Google’s implementation used the same names, organization, and functionality as the Java APIs.
Oracle sued Google in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in August 2010, seven months after it closed its Java creator Sun Microsystems acquisition, contending that Google had infringed Oracle’s copyright.
In May 2012, Judge William Alsup ruled that APIs are not subject to copyright because that would hamper innovation. Oracle appealed the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals, which reversed Judge Alsup in May 2014, finding that the Java APIs are copyrightable. However, he also sent the case back to the trial court to determine whether Google has a fair use defense.
A new District Court trial began in May 2016 on the fair use question. A jury found that Google’s implementation of the Java API was fair use. Oracle appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals in March 2018 again reversed the lower court. Google filed a petition with the Supreme Court in January 2019, receiving a hearing date in early 2020. However, lengthening the case’s tortuous path through the courts further, COVID-19 forced oral arguments to be postponed to last October. Finally, on April 5, the Supreme Court settled the matter.