How Java API Legal Ruling Could Change Coding Forever

NEWS ANALYSIS: It's one thing to copyright code that does a function; it's another to copyright metadata that frames or merely interfaces the code.

Is the May 9 court ruling in Washington, D.C., in the Oracle vs. Google Java copyright lawsuit an intractable blow against common procedures that save time and work in software development?

Might be. If the ruling ultimately holds, there will be a lot of upset programmers out there who will be looking over their shoulders every time they use an API, the interfaces that apps use to communicate with each other, for an open-source project or take a short cut to re-enter or copy and paste some commonly used code.

Let's review: A three-judge U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington overturned a 2012 Circuit Court decision, ruling that Oracle is entitled to copyright protection over application programming interfaces in the Java programming language that are key components in the open-source Android operating system.

As a result of this court-ordered definition, Oracle apparently is free to pursue its high-profile copyright suit against Google over Android's use of Java APIs. There's still more litigation to come, however, before a final ruling is established.

It's All About Control of Java—and Android

Google-developed Android is the world's most widely used mobile device operating system, powering more than 45 percent of the world's smartphones. Android is built largely upon Java, which was developed by Sun Microsystems in the early 1990s and is now property of Oracle, which acquired Sun in 2010.

When Oracle filed the original suit in August 2010, it claimed that Google illegally used seven Java APIs that Oracle owns to help build the Android operating system. After four years of litigation, the number has been whittled down to three APIs. Google contends that the APIs it uses cannot be copyrighted because doing so would be similar to copyrighting a technique used to perform a task. Legally, techniques are not considered intellectual property. But the federal court on May 9 ruled that APIs are not techniques.

Oracle had claimed that the "specifications and implementations of the APIs are not a method of operation or system." As a result, this lawsuit may well become a landmark in the history of software development intellectual property.

Here's the problem: Software developers generally believe that cloning open-source software and its APIs is perfectly acceptable; after all, open source by definition means "public domain." However, in the lawsuit, Oracle is claiming copyright ownership not of the Java code but over the interfaces, standardized names and structures; the APIs, like metadata, are used to organize Java code and describe what it is supposed to do.

This hasn't been litigated before—that's why this case is so ground-breaking. Are code instructions and their interfaces also copyrightable? That's what's being decided here, and if they are, software development as we know it will be changed forever.

Open Source Is All About Cloning Code and APIs

In the open-source world, which continues to expand with each passing day, many key lines of code are clones of some other code; this includes the Apache Web server system, all flavors of Linux operating systems and numerous personal and business applications. If APIs ultimately are protected by copyrights, this entire open-source system of development will be turned on its head.

It's one thing to copyright code that actually does a special function; it's another to make proprietary the metadata that frames the code and simply describes what the code is supposed to do.

This case is probably not over; Google is examining its legal options. It's interesting that the earlier decision in the case, held in San Francisco Circuit Court in 2012, ruled in favor of open APIs remaining open—thus, in favor of Google.

When the case was moved to an Eastern court, the ruling was reversed. We're not sure if the geography has anything material to do with it, but those are the facts.

Perhaps, the next level of the case should be held in Kansas City.

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 13 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...