Posted by Sequel on May 15, 2014
Topic: blogs, Copyrights
Tags: Programming APIs
Federal Circuit Rules, Erroneously, That Programming APIs are Copyright, Compares Them to Dickens

The Federal Circuit Court once again revealed its lack of understanding about the intersection of copyright and tech by overturning a lower court verdict and declaring that programming language application program interfaces (APIs) are subject to copyright. These APIs are intentionally short pieces of text such as “java.lang.ref” and “” whose only purpose is to make it possible for users of a particular language or software library to use the technology.

The ruling came on appeal of a case brought by Oracle Corp. against Google Inc. for infringement of Oracle’s claimed copyright on all of the APIs in the Java programming language. That language was developed by Sun Microsystems more than 20 years ago and was purchased by Oracle in 2009.

The world of technology was aghast at the unexpected and highly unusual ruling. The sole purpose of an API is to allow computer programs to interact with one another, i.e. functional  —  they are considered to be a basic building tool and should be well outside the scope of copyright.

In a particularly dazzling bit of legerdemain, Judge Kathleen O’Malley compared the snippets of code to the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, saying, “no one could contend that this portion of Dickens’ work is unworthy of copyright protection because it can be broken into those shorter constituent components.” She apparently failed to recognize that Oracle was arguing for the copyright to apply only to the shorter constituent components.

To compare and API to DIcken’s authorship is nonsense, in my opinion.  It is fundamental that copyright does NOT protect:  “any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation… regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such a work.”  U.S. Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. Section 102 (b).  This perfectly describes an API.  This does not in any way describe a literary masterpiece as is the Tale of Two Cities.

If allowed to stand, this ruling could completely turn the software development world on its ear. Hopefully, the full panel of the court will show a bit more understanding not only of the issues but of what’s at stake.

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