Oracle, Google and the Future of Programming

When a jury ruled that Google violated copyright laws by improperly using Oracle’s Java API to design the Android OS, it couldn’t reach an agreement on Google’s claims of “fair use.”

The outcome of this trial will be significant to the future of programming, since it may limit code reuse across languages. Restricting use by forcing payment from licensees could cripple innovation. Multiple sources have already begun to comment on the potential losses, including this from Ars Technica:

If the verdict that Android infringed copyrights stands, it could put programmers in a difficult situation. Java is an open source language, but now it’s not clear how free programmers are to use it, since Oracle has said that anyone following the Java APIs—which are basically sets of instructions about how to use Java—needs a license.

The effects beyond Android and Java are unclear. At this point, Android is the only “non-standard” implementation of Java. However, it could have a chilling effect, and if Oracle is seen as a major IP enforcer when it comes to Java, that could backfire.

Users of multiple languages and API implementations will find themselves in need of legal representation.

In a nutshell, if the jury sides with Oracle that the copyrights in the headers of every file of the Java source base apply specifically to the syntax of the APIs, then Oracle can extract payment and penalties from Google for having implemented those APIs without Oracle’s blessing (or, in more specific terms, without a license).

Should this come to pass, numerous products will suddenly find themselves on an uncertain legal standing in which the previously benign but now newly empowered copyright holders might assert punitive copyright claims. Chief among these would be any re-implementation of an existing language. So, Jython, IronPython, and PyPy for Python; JRuby, IronRuby, and Rubinius for Ruby; Mono for C# and VB; possibly C++ for C, GCC for C and C++ and Objective-C; and so forth. And of course, all the various browsers that use JavaScript might owe royalties to the acquirers of Netscape’s intellectual property.

Legal experts told CNET that a ruling in favor of Google’s motion for a mistrial could be a good one for developers. If the judge rules that APIs are subject to copyright, it’s a different story.

There is a dangerous potential outcome if we can start copyrighting APIs because copyright does not contemplate the protection of functional computer programming. It does contemplate protection of what you can create with the programming languages or programs like APIs”

I see a lot of potential for abuse. What do you think? Should APIs be copyrightable? Tell me what you think in the comments below.

Image: Android Community

4 Responses to “Oracle, Google and the Future of Programming”

  1. APIs should not be copyrightable, as it hinders efficiencies of scale for the companies down the food-chain. This will in-turn weaken the ability of US companies to compete in the markets.

    The only exception allowed should be if the API is non-obvious at the time of US, and is protected by a Patent. In that case the responsibility to the Patent-holder should take precedence.

    My 2 cents,
    – Ranjan

  2. This is a case of the MEllenials believing that all software is open for the taking and if it can be improved so the world can be “changed” so much the better. I wonder how the GoogleBoyzzz would feel if their search algorithm was cloned?

  3. Priscilla Berry

    This feels like an old rerun. We went through this will AT&T and UNIX, and Microsoft Excel versus Lotus 1-2-3.

    I worked at AT&T/Bell when they put forth the claim that they owned the rights to UNIX and everyone who used a different flavor of it; i.e., BSD , Solaris, HP-UX ,AIX,etc; had to pay them royalties.

    The biggest companies that had their own versions of UNIX formed a organization called OSF (Open Software Foundation), which I also went to work for. OSF’s goal was to produce a UNIX standard (OSF/1) that all the members firms would use, and to fight AT&T’s attempt to monopolize UNIX and keep it open. OSF morphed into The Open Group, which is an industry standards consortium, and owns the UNIX trademark. They also control the TOGAF standard.

    I find it very ironic that Oracle, who now owns Solaris & Java, is trying to do to Google what AT&T tried to do to them. (I use to work at Sun as well).

    – Priscilla Berry