To Copyright or Not to Copyright?: How Oracle v. Google May Cause Issues for Future Software Development

When it comes to copyright law, software and how it should be copyrighted can be a complicated issue to tackle. The recent Oracle Am., Inc. v. Google, Inc. case is a prime example of this.

The company Oracle owns software which is a modified version of Javascript that allows for different kinds of programs to communicate and be compatible with each other. This type of software is called Application Programming Interfaces, or APIs. In this case, Google used Oracle’s APIs without permission in order to create Android and its mobile operating system, which prompted Oracle to sue Google and claim that this constituted copyright infringement. Once the case was brought to court, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California sided with Google, stating that these APIs were “methods of operation” which cannot be copyrighted under 17 U.S.C. § 102(b). However, on appeal in the Federal Circuit court, the decision was reversed and that court sided with Oracle stating that the APIs were in fact copyrightable material. The Supreme Court has denied to grant certiorari and hear the case, leaving many people disappointed, so now the case will be heard once more in district court where Google will try to show that its use of the APIs was fair use.

With the Supreme Court not making a decision on whether or not APIs can be copyrighted, this makes this case simply another fair use case. If the court sides with Google once more and determines its use was indeed fair, then this case can be used as precedent for other coders and software developers who get sued for using APIs later on down the road. However, each fair use decision relies on the specific details of that case, and the outcome is ultimately left to whatever court making that decision. Without a Supreme Court ruling that states whether APIs are copyrightable or not, there is no solid precedent for software developers to rely on, and using APIs without permission will still be risky.

APIs are crucial to interoperability between programs, and are a vital factor when it comes to being able to code and create new products. So deciding whether or not these interfaces can be copyrighted by a single company is concerning to many people in the software development field.  If certain coders are familiar with a particular form of APIs, but they don’t have permission to use them and are afraid of being sued for copyright infringement like Google has been, new developments could be delayed. This potential lag could last for the amount of time it takes for the coders to learn how to use a new API, or get permission from the owner, or it could mean a complete halt altogether if the risk of a pricey lawsuit doesn’t seem worth it.

Other companies’ practice with regard to the use of APIs and similar programs without permission may depend on Google’s success with its fair use argument. Even if Google prevails, companies may decide that the chance of a lawsuit does not make it worth the risk at all.