Oracle appeal in Google API copyright suit hit with criticism

Computer scientists, tech industry leaders, and EFF petition the appeals court to uphold Judge Alsup's decision that the 37 Java APIs are not copyrightable.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is throwing in its two cents in the ongoing legal battle between Oracle and Google over whether APIs should or shouldn't be copyrightable.

Gathering together 32 computer scientists and tech industry leaders, the Internet advocacy organization submitted an amicus brief to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit on Thursday. The brief is signed by tech leaders like MS-DOS author Tim Paterson and ARPANET developer Larry Roberts.

EFF and the brief's signatories are trying to convince the court that APIs should not be copyrightable because they are critical to spurring innovation and inter-operability in the tech world.

"The law is already clear that computer languages are mediums of communication and aren't copyrightable. Even though copyright might cover what was creatively written in the language, it doesn't cover functions that must all be written in the same way," EFF staff attorney Julie Samuels said in a statement. "APIs are similarly functional -- they are specifications allowing programs to communicate with each other."

Oracle originally sued Google for copyright infringement related to Google's use of 37 Java APIs used on its Android mobile operating system. The case went to trial last May. During the trial, Google argued it used the Java APIs because the Java programming language is free to use, and the APIs are required to use the language. Oracle argued that Google knowingly used the APIs without a license from Sun Microsystems, which was bought by Oracle in 2010.

At the end of the trial, a jury handed down a partial verdict that found that Google infringed the overall structure, sequence, and organization of Java's language, but offered no opinion on the matter of fair use. A few days later, however, the judge presiding over the case, Judge William Alsup, ruled that the APIs were non-copyrightable , which led to the dismissal of Oracle's copyright infringement claim.

Unhappy with this outcome, Oracle filed an appeal to the judge's ruling in October. In its appeals brief, the company said Google's use of Java in Android was "decidedly unfair" and that copyright is designed to protect all kinds of works, including "a short poem or even a Chinese menu," but what it created in Java was "vastly more original, creative, and labor-intensive."

Regarding EFF's amicus brief, Oracle's Deborah Hellinger told CNET, "I guess everyone is having collective amnesia about the uncontroverted testimony that Android is not compatible with Java."

It appears, however, that EFF is mostly concerned about the precedent that could be set by copyrighting any type of API. The group is now asking the appeals court to uphold the decision made by Judge Alsup last May and says that the real-world ramifications of copyrighting APIs would be severe.

"Without the compatibility enabled by APIs that are open, we would not have the vibrant computer and Internet environment we experience today, with new products and services routinely changing the way we see and interact with the world," EFF Fellow Michael Barclay said in a statement. "APIs that are open spur the development of software, creating programs that the interface's original creator might never have envisioned."

Update, May 31 at 11:25 a.m. PT: Adds comment from Oracle's Deborah Hellinger.

About the author

Dara Kerr, a freelance journalist based in the Bay Area, is fascinated by robots, supercomputers and Internet memes. When not writing about technology and modernity, she likes to travel to far-off countries.

 

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