This story was written by Keith Dawson for UBM DeusM’s community Web site Business Agility, sponsored by IBM. It is archived here for informational purposes only because the Business Agility site is no more. This material is Copyright 2012 by UBM DeusM.

APIs Are Not Copyrightable

Oracle v. Google case wraps, with all the legal legs knocked out from under Oracle.

The judge in Oracle v. Google ruled that APIs cannot be copyrighted, destroying the last of Oracle's case; this follows a jury finding of no patent infringement. Oracle will appeal.

We wrote about the case early last month, after the copyright phase of the trial had concluded with a mixed and messy verdict. US District Judge William Alsup presided over a second phase, regarding patents, in a trial that stretched to six weeks.

A jury had found that Google infringed the copyright of one Java function, comprising nine lines of code. They also found that Google infringed the copyright of the APIs of 37 Java functions -- having been instructed to assume that APIs are in fact copyrightable. The jury deadlocked over the question of whether Google's use of all of that code constituted "fair use"; this meant that even if the judge later found APIs to be copyrightable, Google would not be liable for any damages for its use of those 37 functions.

In the patent phase of the trial, which concluded on May 23, the jury found that Google had not infringed the two patents Oracle claimed it had.

Finally, last week Judge Alsup ruled that APIs cannot be copyrighted in the first place. This leaves Oracle with essentially nothing -- statutory damages for Google's use of nine lines of code, which cannot exceed $150,000. It might well be much less, given Judge Alsup's view of Google's only material infringement. As Ars Technica describes it, the judge called the copying [that] did take place "innocuous and overblown by Oracle," and added, "This was an innocent and inconsequential instance of copying in the context of a massive number of lines of code."

The wages of in-agility
What's an in-agile company to do after spending millions of dollars, perhaps tens of millions, tilting at intellectual-property windmills? Why, appeal, of course. Oracle has promised to do so.

To wring any satisfaction (let alone compensation) out of the smoking crater that was their case, Oracle will need to get an appeals court to reverse Judge Alsup's finding that APIs cannot be copyrighted. They will need to prevail in the Supreme Court after Google's inevitable appeal. They will then need to mount a brand new trial and drag another jury through it all over again. The jury will need to find that Google infringed copyrighted code in a way not allowed under the "fair use" doctrine.

Personally I can't believe that even a company as notoriously aggressive as Oracle will try to take it that far. If they do appeal, and don't prevail, the case will sputter to a conclusion. The interoperability of libraries, programs, and systems at all scales will be preserved. Oracle will have failed in their attempt to reverse the effect of the previous open-sourcing of Java, and all will be right with the world.