77 well-known computer scientists have urged the Supreme Court to revisit a court ruling in May that said APIs are entitled to copyright protection. The ruling was part of an ongoing years-long lawsuit between Oracle against Google. Oracle alleged that the structure of certain Java APIs in Google's Android operating system violated its copyrights; Google has argued that API structures should not be copyrightable.
In May 2012, a judge ruled that the Java APIs were not entitled to copyright protection, but Oracle appealed the decision to the Federal Circuit Court and two years later, it reversed the lower court's ruling and came to the conclusion that the APIs are entitled to copyright protection. The case was sent back to the lower court to determine whether Google had the right to use the copyrighted API under fair use doctrine.
What's at stake?
When the Federal Circuit Court's decision was announced, ProgrammableWeb's Editor-in-Chief David Berlind noted the significant implications of the court's ruling. He wrote, "This ruling certainly looks to be both dangerous and stifling. For decades, the efficient interoperation of pretty much everything digital (and some things analog) has involved APIs. In concluding that APIs are copyrightable, the Appellate Court sent pretty much every technology lawyer on the planet scrambling to figure out next steps."
Berlind went on to explain why web APIs were especially vulnerable following the court's ruling:
The reason Web APIs are particularly vulnerable is because their designs, methods, and resources are so easily discoverable. The very nature of a Web API means that it's exposed to the Web where pretty much everybody can see it.
APIs of all sorts tend to gravitate towards patterns that mimic the best practices of API provisioning while addressing the sensitivities of developers. The notion that the re-use of time tested patterns could result in a copyright infringement suit offends the sensibilities and camaraderie of those of us in the API economy. We've evolved those patterns together, as a community. If one, or three, or five years from now, the tens of thousands or millions of APIs on the Web must defy the expectations of developers in order to create a legal shield, innovation will have been thoroughly stifled.
Asking the Supreme Court to step in
In their amicus brief, which was filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), dozens of the world's most prominent and accomplished computer scientists echoed many of the same concerns as Berlind. "For decades, computer scientists have relied on the open nature of APIs to enable rapid innovation in computer technology," they wrote.
They pointed out that the controversial decision in Oracle v. Google ran counter to previous Supreme Court rulings:
...the free and open use of APIs has been both routine and essential in the computer industry since its beginning, and that use depended, in turn, on the sensible assumption that APIs and other interfaces were uncopyrightable.
That assumption was well-founded. It was based, in large part, on this Court’s own recognition, in 1996, that menu hierarchies that control functional capabilities are a method of operation, and thus uncopyrightable under 17 U.S.C. § 102(b).
Using Amazon Web Services as an example, the group observed that if APIs are allowed to be copyrighted, the market for cloud computing and web-based services could be changed forever, and not for the better:
For example, most providers rely on Amazon’s cloud services API to allow users to control and operate the cloud computers that they rent. Because the API is not restricted by copyright, companies like CloudStack and Eucalyptus can compete with Amazon to provide the best implementation of that API. Businesses that employ cloud services can also write or commission their own proprietary software to perform operations on cloud servers. In addition, since major cloud service providers like Amazon, Eucalyptus, and CloudStack use the same standard specifications for their APIs, their customers can easily switch from one cloud service to another.
By contrast, if copyright allowed Amazon to monopolize its cloud storage API, Amazon would be able to use that power to lock in its users and cripple new competitors. Because businesses use custom software built around the cloud service provider’s API, switching to a cloud service provider with a different API would require rewriting their cloud software. Given the cost and disruption of doing so, few businesses would be willing to leave their cloud service provider, meaning late entrants in the cloud service market would be hard-pressed to build a customer base. The ultimate result: less choice, less innovation.
For these reasons and more, the computer scientists urged the Supreme Court to take action.
What will the Supreme Court do?
Given the high-impact nature of this controversy, one would expect the Supreme Court to take up the matter. Recently, the nation's top court has demonstrated an interest in disputes over intellectual property. The most notable example of that is Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank International, which involved a dispute over patentability. In Alice, the Supreme Court ruled that a computer-implemented escrow system was not patentable because it represented an abstract idea. Implementing that abstract idea with a computer didn't change the fact that it was still an abstract idea not entitled to patent protection.
While the Supreme Court's decision in Alice was narrow and left numerous open questions, some experts argue that it was actually more significant than it might appear. The EFF, which was also involved in the Alice case, commented after the ruling, "The Supreme Court did not offer the clearest guidance on when a patent claims merely an abstract idea, but it did offer guidance that should help to invalidate some of the more egregious software patents out there."
The good news is that the API copyright issue is on the surface much more straightforward than issues surrounding patents. APIs are either eligible for copyright protection or not. So if and when the Supreme Court addresses the matter, businesses and developers will hopefully get a clear decision that ends this battle once and for all.