When Google was creating the Android operating system for smartphones… (Karen Bleier / AFP / Getty…)
The legal battle between Google and Oracle over the use of Java in Google's Android software is more than just another bruising patent fight between rival tech companies. The more unusual and disturbing aspect of the dispute is Oracle's claim to hold copyrights to Java's "application programming interfaces," or the bits of code that let apps written in Java work with other programs. Although a federal jury found that Google violated those copyrights (but not Oracle's patents), District Judge William Alsup can still hold that APIs aren't copyrightable. He should.
Sun Microsystems made the Java programming language freely available in 1995, a strategic move designed to boost sales of other products and help defend Sun against competition from Microsoft. The company also distributed a series of Java APIs that enabled developers of software platforms and programs to let their products inter-operate with those written in Java. When Google was creating the Android operating system for smartphones and other portable devices, it included its own version of the Java APIs so developers could write apps for Android devices largely in Java.
Oracle acquired Sun in 2010 and sued Google not long thereafter. It can't claim copyright over Java; a language can't be copyrighted, just creative expressions in that language. Nor could it show that Google copied the actual code in its APIs. So it argued that the Java APIs reflected a form of coding artistry that Google infringed on by copying the "sequence, structure and organization." But under that line of reasoning, any software writing task that could be accomplished in more than one way might be characterized as a creative expression, even if it's done with interchangeable sets of garden-variety code.
Extending copyright protection to programming interfaces would discourage the inter-operability and interaction that are a prime source of innovation. The providers of software platforms could encourage others to implement their APIs to create new Web-based services or apps, then try to extract royalties from the ones that proved popular. The implications are even worse in the case of programming languages such as Java. Giving a company a sweeping claim over a language's APIs, which are crucial to a program's workability, could effectively let it decide what programs can be written in that language. Google earns no plaudits for creating a version of Java that doesn't inter-operate with the ones Sun championed. But that doesn't justify stretching the bounds of copyright law to give Oracle control over Java's APIs.