Are APIs protected by copyright?
In the long-running litigation (and hey, is there any litigation that isn’t “long-running”?) between Oracle and Google, a US court decided in 2012 that APIs in this case were not eligible for copyright protection. See our earlier post. This meant a complete loss for Oracle in its lawsuit against Google for infringement of the Java APIs used in Google’s Android software.
Copyright protects only original expression. Applied to software code (including API protocols), the law of copyright tells us that certain elements are not protectable by copyright since they lack originality. The US trial level decision in Oracle vs. Google has been appealed and the parties are now filing briefs in the US Federal Court of Appeals (a copy of Oracle’s brief is here). The briefs make fascinating reading for those interested in the finer points of copyright law and the history of the Java programming.
Oracle’s brief opens by sketching a scene: “Ann Droid wants to publish a bestseller. So she sits down with an advance copy of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix —the fifth book—and proceeds to transcribe. She verbatim copies all the chapter titles—from Chapter 1 (“Dudley Demented”) to Chapter 38 (“The Second War Begins”). She copies verbatim the topic sentences of each paragraph, starting from the first (highly descriptive) one and continuing, in order, to the last, simple one (“Harry nodded.”). She then paraphrases the rest of each paragraph. She rushes the competing version to press before the original under the title: Ann Droid’s Harry Potter 5.0. The knockoff flies off the shelves.”
Does this constitute copyright infringement?
One of the big issues on appeal will be whether the appeals court accepts the notion that copyright infringement can occur without any actual direct copying of code. This is the so-called SSO argument - that the “structure, sequence and organization” of the software can attract copyright protection, regardless of whether specific code is cut-and-paste. As illustrated in the Harry Potter example above.