Oracle vs Google suit could set dangerous API openness precedent

The Google vs Oracle trial could have serious and long-lasting implications for app developers and manufacturers, experts have warned, with decisions around fair-use of APIs potentially casting coders into the morass of copyright hell. "Treating APIs as copyrightable would have a profound negative impact on interoperability, and, therefore, innovation" Julie Samuels, staff attorney at the Electronics Frontier Foundation, said of the decision. Presiding Judge William Alsup has said he will rule on whether APIs come under fair-use before the trial is out.

"Treating APIs as copyrightable would have a profound negative impact on interoperability, and, therefore, innovation. APIs are ubiquitous and fundamental to all kinds of program development ... Allowing a party to assert control over APIs means that a party can determine who can make compatible and interoperable software, an idea that is anathema to those who create the software we rely on everyday. Put clearly, the developer of a platform should not be able to control add-on software development for that platform" Julie Samuels, EFF

For Google and Oracle, the decision on fair-use will be a pivotal one in the trial. Oracle alleges that Google knowingly used elements of Java code in Android, having abandoned attempts to license it officially, and purposefully avoided paying any fees as other companies had conceded to. Google, however, argues that it made perfectly legitimate use of Java code that Sun – which Oracle later acquired – had been encouraging third-party adoption of.

Judge Alsup has already told legal teams from both companies that, should he decide that API adoption comes under the heading of fair-use, there will be "zero finding of copyright liability" – despite the jury deciding that Google had used Oracle's code. The wishy-washy jury decision has already prompted Google to call for a mistrial.

"There's a perfectly good legal reason not to treat APIs as copyrightable material: they are purely functional" the EFF's Samuels writes. "The law is already clear that copyright cannot cover programming languages, which are merely mediums for creation (instead, copyright may potentially cover what one creatively writes in that language)."

If Alsup decides that Google's fair-use argument does not, indeed, hold water, then the prospect for closed APIs that are legally protected from adoption by third-parties becomes a very real possibility. That could have significant financial implications for Google, but far longer-lasting and broader ones for the rest of the software industry.