Why Java APIs aren't the same as a Harry Potter novel

Oracle seeks to convince appeals court that Google's use of 37 lines of code is akin to plagiarizing a blockbuster literary work

Google's decision to copy 37 lines of Java API code is analogous to a two-bit author plagiarizing an entire Harry Potter novel, according to a freshly filed appeal from Oracle over Google's commercial use of Java.

Oracle is still seething over the fact that a U.S. District Court cleared Google last May of copyright infringement, despite the fact the court found that Google developers had, indeed, copied a number of Oracle's Java APIs in Android OS. Judge William H. Alsup determined that APIs are not eligible for copyright protection under U.S. law, so Google walked away unscathed -- to the relief of supporters of the Android ecosystem.

Oracle has followed up on its promise to appeal, laying out an ambitious case as to why Google's appropriation of 37 lines of code is a flagrant copyright violation. In a nutshell, Oracle's 28 lawyers make the case that an API -- an interface that enables software to talk with other software -- should have the same copyright protections as creative works, such as a symphony or a children's novel.

In the appeal, Oracle presents a fanciful scenario in which a fictitious author named Ann Droid (Get it?) gets her hands on an advanced copy of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix." (The attorneys presumably settled on that title because they are paid by the word and it's the longest-titled book in the series.) Droid "copies verbatim the topic sentences of each paragraph, starting from the first (highly descriptive) one and continuing, in order, to the last, simple one ('Harry nodded.'). She then paraphrases the rest of each paragraph. She rushes the competing version to press before the original under the title: 'Ann Droid's Harry Potter 5.0.' The knockoff flies off the shelves."

The scenario ends with J.K. Rowling successfully suing Droid for copy infringement, despite Droid's defense of, "But I wrote most of the words from scratch. Besides, this was fair use, because I copied only the portions necessary to tap into the Harry Potter fan base."

Oracle can argue until it's blue in the face that lines of code that provide a practical function should enjoy the same copyright protections as a creative work, but that's not how the law works. Under the Copyright Act, society is free to exploit facts, ideas, processes, or methods of operation in a copyrighted work. To protect processes or methods of operation, a creator must look to patent laws.

Groklaw explains it well:

It's there in black and white that methods of operation are not protected by copyright. ... How much can you do without permission with "Harry Potter"? That's right. Virtually nothing. Maybe in a review you could quote a little bit. But software isn't just expression. It's expression, yes, but it has to run, to do something. You don't just read software, as you would a novel. The computer runs it, and that means others have to be able to interact with your software somehow.

Oracle, to its shame, would like all its software, including methods of operation like APIs -- which are how you interact with someone's software -- to be as proprietarily frozen and forbidden as that.

Cloning APIs is common practice in programming, as Wired's Cade Metz observed last year. "In building a new software platform, software companies and other software designers often clone the APIs of an existing platform. It's a way of making a platform instantly palatable to an established community of application developers," Metz wrote. "Several cloud-computing platforms mimic the APIs of the runaway market leader, Amazon Web Services, and in building Android, Google mimicked the APIs for the Java platform. This lets developers build Android applications using the Java programming language."

Were Oracle to wins its appeal and convince an appeals court that APIs warrant the same levels of protection as purely creative works, the decision could prove disruptive for the entire tech industry. Opportunistic companies could copyright line after line of common API code, then demand royalties from any software maker who used them.

What's more, ruling in favor of Oracle "would have broad ramifications for other APIs and beyond APIs," attorney Ronald Abramson told Wired. "If you can copyright the structure, sequence, and organization of data, that changes the landscape."

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