Copyright vs. Innovation

How expanding copyright protections for APIs could undermine the future of the web

Application programming interfaces (APIs) are the building blocks of modern software development. Programmers rarely write code from scratch. Instead, programmers start with APIs to automate traditional routine processes and basic functionality. But besides providing a basic standard for software developers, APIs do so much more. They’re software intermediaries, facilitating communication between applications and devices. By providing a singular, independent standard, good APIs bolster efficiency and innovation. 

Using, or reimplementing, APIs for new applications isn’t extraordinary. Want the ability to create an automatic calendar event for your users? There’s an API for that. Want to create a bot that unrolls lengthy Twitter threads? There’s an API for that. Pre-warming your Tesla? There’s an API for that. Indeed, there’s an API for almost everything. 

Before the U.S. Supreme Court is a complicated dispute over the copyrightability of APIs. Scheduled for March 24th, the Court will finally hear oral arguments in the case of Google v. Oracle (originally known as Oracle v. Google). The key question: is Google’s reimplementation of Java’s “free and open” APIs fair use? The decision could upset software development and the open source community. 

In designing Android, Google reimplemented several Java APIs for future developers to use. The beauty of the Android operating system is not only that it can exist on any device. Because Android is accessible to over 7.1 million Java developers, almost anyone can make it onto the app store. And therein lies the problem. Are Google, and the Android marketplace, unfairly profiting off Oracle’s language? 

The way Oracle sees it, APIs are like the chapter titles and topic sentences of a “Harry Potter” novel. But as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, along with multiple others in support of Google, pointed out, that analogy is absurd. APIs are more like the concept of wizarding in “Harry Potter;” an uncopyrightable idea. Contrary to the belief of most, APIs are not even considered software. Rather, APIs are nothing more than a series of function calls used in the development of software. The distinction, though subtle, is the difference between uncopyrightable functionality and copyrightable expression. That’s the challenge before Google’s lawyers. 

Worse, if reimplementation of APIs was susceptible to infringement, what about other protocols? In the same way APIs help applications communicate, network protocols enable interconnectivity. Plus, social media sites like Twitter have considered shifting towards an open social network standard, using a “Protocols not Platforms” approach. Such a shift would be pivotal for reinventing and improving content moderation and online privacy. The current development of the decentralized web (Web 3.0) relies upon reimplementing existing standards and protocols. Copyright would be detrimental to all of these efforts.

Not to mention, it would also be detrimental to competition. New players would face oppressive barriers. Developers must pay exorbitant license fees upfront, or forgo compatibility. The latter reinforces walled development gardens stifling open source projects. The former empowers market incumbents, making big tech bigger. Google can just create a new programming language devoid of Java’s API calls. In fact, they already did with Kotlin. But startups don’t have that same luxury, nor the developer resources. Silicon Valley runs on “plug-and-play.” And ironically, so does Oracle, seeing as they repurpose APIs for their own use too. 

Copyright encourages authors and creators to pursue their inventions. Unfortunately, it’s also often abused to squeeze out competitors. These days, no project is safe from the threat of death-by-a-thousand-licenses. This case has little to do with protecting inventors. Rather, Oracle knows exactly what they’re getting out of this fight. At stake is a massive, profitable, software empire thriving on license-dependency. Infringement is just the cost of doing business.

Editor’s note: This post discusses the Google v. Oracle case. Lincoln Network does not receive funding from either company to write about this or other issues, however we have received Google support in the past. Click here for more about how we’re funded and our commitment to transparency.

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