High Court Wants Gov't Views in Google vs. Oracle API Copyright Fight

The Supreme Court asked the U.S. Solicitor General for the administration's position on the copyrightability of application programming interfaces.

Android lawsuit

The Supreme Court has asked U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli for the government's opinion in a closely watched dispute between Google and Oracle over whether copyright protections should extend to application programming interfaces (APIs).

Oracle sued Google back in 2010 over the latter's use of certain Java APIs in its Android operating system. In its lawsuit, Oracle claimed that Google had infringed on its patents and copyrights in doing so. The company is seeking $1 billion in damages from Google.

Google and its numerous supporters, including the Computer and Communications Industry Association of America, Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard, have argued that software developers need the ability to freely extend and implement existing APIs without any copyright restrictions. They have claimed that APIs are fundamental to software and hardware interoperability and noted that the Internet as it exists today would not have been possible if companies had been allowed to copyright APIs.

In May 2012, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District Court agreed with that sentiment and ruled the Java APIs in question did not have copyright protections. The court held that Google, therefore, had not violated any copyright laws in using them in its Android mobile operating system.

However, two years later in May 2014, the U.S Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which reviewed the case upon Oracle's appeal, reversed the District Court and held that APIs can indeed by copyrighted. But the appellate court left it up to the lower court to decide if Google could claim fair use as a defense for having used the APIs.

Google, in turn, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in an October 2014 petition that asked the nation's highest court to review the lower court's decision.

In its appeal, Google said the issue in question was whether copyright protection should extend "to all elements of an original work of computer software, including a system or method of operation that an author could have written in more than one way."

Monday's ruling stems from that motion and invites Verrilli to file a brief expressing the views of the Obama Administration in the matter. It does not mean that the court has agreed to review the case.

"It's not all that unusual for the court to seek the views of the SG," in such situations, said Corynne McSherry, intellectual property director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). "It may signal that the court recognizes the importance of this case."

The case has huge implications for the software industry. APIs basically provide a way for different software applications and programs to communicate with each other in a seamless fashion.

Google has argued that copyrighting APIs is dangerous because it would make it much harder for companies to innovate and build programs and systems capable of interaction with products from other developers.

In its amicus curiae brief, the EFF has noted that courts around the country have long held that the Copyright Act only protects a software developer's source code and creative expression. "[It] does not cover the processes, systems and methods of operation that the code may employ to interface with other software," the rights firm said in its brief, which was filed on behalf of dozens of computer scientists.

Jaikumar Vijayan

Jaikumar Vijayan

Vijayan is an award-winning independent journalist and tech content creation specialist covering data security and privacy, business intelligence, big data and data analytics.