Google Enlists Computer Scientists to Oppose Oracle Java API Appeal

A group of computer scientists petitioned the court to block Oracle's attempt to appeal its loss in the Java copyright case.

Several prominent computer scientists have joined Google in its battle to thwart Oracle's appeal of a federal judge's ruling that the Java APIs Google used to create Android are not copyrightable.

In an amicus brief filed with the court May 30, a group of 32 computer scientists urged an appeals court today to block the copyright claims over the APIs in the Oracle vs. Google court battle, arguing that APIs that are open are critical to innovation and interoperability in computers and computer systems.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) represents the group of computer scientists—including individuals such as MS-DOS author Tim Paterson and ARPANET developer Larry Roberts—in the amicus brief filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The group urges the court to uphold a decision from U.S. District Judge William Alsup finding that APIs are not copyrightable. They argue that Oracle is attempting to overextend copyright coverage in its case against Google, citing the claim as irreconcilable with the purpose of copyright law and the nature of computer science.

"The law is already clear that computer languages are mediums of communication and aren't copyrightable," Julie Samuels, EFF staff attorney, said in a statement. "Even though copyright might cover what was creatively written in the language, it doesn't cover functions that must all be written in the same way. APIs are similarly functional—they are specifications allowing programs to communicate with each other. As Judge Alsup found, under the law APIs are simply not copyrightable material."

In addition, the computer scientists argue that the real-world ramifications of copyrighting APIs would be severe. All software developers use APIs to make their software work with other software. For example, your Web browser uses APIs to work with various computer operating systems so it can open files and display windows on the screen. If APIs are copyrightable, then developers can control who can make interoperable software, blocking competitors and creative new products.

"Without the compatibility enabled by APIs that are open, we would not have the vibrant computer and Internet environment we experience today, with new products and services routinely changing the way we see and interact with the world," EFF Fellow Michael Barclay, said in a statement. "APIs that are open spur the development of software, creating programs that the interface's original creator might never have envisioned. We hope the appeals court rejects Oracle's appeal in this case to protect technological innovation."

Meanwhile, Florian Mueller, author of the FOSS Patents blog and a consultant for Oracle, made no bones about how he views Google's amicus, or friend-of-the-court, briefs.

"A couple of months ago Oracle's appeal received support from an impressive and diverse roster of amici (overview of amici, former U.S. copyright chief's warning against eviscerating protection for software, Sun founder's submission explanatory filing by academics regarding API creativity, filings by organizations representing creatives)," Mueller wrote in a May 31 post. "By contrast, the list of amicus briefs supporting Google is so underwhelming that I'm wondering whether someone is still going to file something (maybe someone got confused about the deadline).

"With the greatest respect for the work that some of the individuals ("Computer Scientists") did several decades ago, this mostly comes down to an effort orchestrated by two Google-funded, IP-hostile organizations," he wrote. "I really thought Google, being as powerful as it is, could do better than that."

Mueller is referring to the EFF and the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA) as the two organizations. He also notes that some of the work the computer scientists accomplished was "several decades ago." However, current prominent tech folks, including Brendan Eich, the creator of JavaScript and CTO of Mozilla, are signatories of the EFF brief, as is Martin Fowler, chief scientist at ThoughtWorks, and Bruce Schneier, chief security technology officer at BT.