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Google has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the CAFC’s ruling that Oracle's Java APIs are copyrightable.
Editor’s note: this is a forthcoming article for the March 2015 issue of Communications of the ACM (CACM); it is published here with permission.
For more than 20 years, the prevailing view has been that application program interfaces (APIs) are unprotectable elements of copyrighted computer programs. Under this view, programmers are free to reimplement other firms’ APIs in independently written code. Competition and innovation in the software industry has thrived amazingly well in part because of rulings upholding this understanding.
Challenging this view is the Court of Appeals of the Federal Circuit (CAFC) May 2014 decision in Oracle v. Google. The CAFC held that the “structure, sequence, and organization” (SSO) of Oracle’s Java APIs that Google reimplemented in its Android software are protectable expression under copyright law. It reversed a lower court ruling that the Java APIs were not copyrightable.
Google has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the CAFC’s ruling. Several amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs have been filed in support of this effort. Hewlett-Packard, Red Hat, and Yahoo! (PDF) are among these amici (as am I and 77 computer scientists).
The Supreme Court may take the case because the CAFC’s decision is in conflict with other appellate court rulings that exclude APIs from copyright protection.
This article will explain the Oracle and Google theories about the copyrightability of Java APIs and the precedents on which each relies. The stakes in this case could not be higher. Read more…