Google vs. Oracle: The Fight over APIs and Why It Matters

May 25, 2012

Oracle vs Google AndroidOracle and Google are engaged in a vigorous lawsuit involving intellectual property rights for Oracle’s Java software. 

At the heart of that litigation are Oracle’s copyright claims for a particular set of computer code, “application programming interfaces” (APIs).

Although for most of us, APIs are arcane sections of code, the manner in which the copyright dispute they have incited is ultimately resolved can have profound implications for users of the Internet, mobile devices, and a wide range of equipment with embedded software.

APIs are pieces of computer code that serve as interfaces helping to connect software platforms with software applications.

Developers who want to write code to run on various software platforms must have access to the APIs for those platforms, and they must be comfortable writing code compatible with the APIs.

Over the years, developers have become familiar and comfortable with the Java APIs, and this fostered proliferation of Java-based applications which made Java an extremely popular software platform.

Oracle argues that the Java APIs are copyrighted Oracle property which Google incorporated into its Android software for mobile devices without Oracle’s permission.

That use of the APIs is, Oracle claims, copyright infringement.

Some industry observers note that it makes perfect sense for Google to “clone” the Java APIs for use in the Android software.

By using APIs that are familiar to many different developers, Google ensures that many different software applications for Android will be created and distributed quickly.

There is little doubt that the code which constitutes APIs can be copyrighted.

The key issue is whether the principle of fair use or some form of compulsory license should be applied to ensure that parties have access to APIs for use in other software platforms.

Other nations have addressed this issue.

For example, the High Court of the European Union recently ruled that copyright can not be used to deny access to computer languages or functionalities. 

Copyright legislation in several countries expressly permits access to computer code for specific functional purposes, including interfaces and integration of different computer programs.

A ruling that restricts access to APIs could have substantial impact.

APIs for a variety of software platforms are routinely cloned in order to promote broader use.

For example, Amazon developed a set of APIs for use in its cloud computing platform, and numerous cloud computing systems provided by other parties now reportedly make use of cloned Amazon cloud computing APIs.

If the court determines that API developers can deny access to their APIs, that ruling can disrupt all of the platforms that make use of cloned application interfaces.

Although it appears clear that owners of APIs can, and should, be able to assert copyright over their code, it is also clear that enforcement of those rights should not be permitted to impede development of new software platforms or the effective and efficient integration and interconnection of software developed by diverse parties.

As the court in this case addresses API rights, it should recognize the significant commercial and technical implications of its actions.