Computer scientists oppose Oracle's bid to copyright Java APIs

Some prominent scientists, including the inventor of JavaScript, are backing Google in its court battle with Oracle

Nearly three dozen computer scientists have signed off on a court brief opposing Oracle's effort to copyright its Java APIs, a move they say would hold back the computer industry and deny affordable technology to end users.

The group, which includes prominent names such as MS-DOS author Tim Paterson and ARPANET developer Larry Roberts, signed the amicus brief in support of Google in its copyright lawsuit with Oracle.

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Oracle accuses Google of infringing the copyright on its Java APIs (application programming interfaces) in the development of Google's Android OS, and it is seeking billions of dollars in damages. Google denies any wrongdoing and has argued, in part, that software APIs aren't eligible for copyright protection under U.S. law.

Last year, a district court in California largely agreed with Google and ruled against Oracle in the case. Judge William Alsup determined that the Java APIs in the case can't be covered by copyright because they're a functional part of the Java platform and required by others to use the Java language. Copyright law typically does not extend to works that are functional in nature.

Oracle appealed the decision, and Thursday's brief aims to sway the court that will eventually decide that appeal. It was filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation on behalf of 32 computer scientists and software developers. Other signatories are Brendan Eich, inventor of JavaScript and the CTO of Mozilla; Michael Tiemann, author of the GNU C++ compiler and an executive at Red Hat; and Samba developer Andrew Tridgell.

"The freedom to reimplement and extend existing APIs has been the key to competition and progress in the computer field -- both hardware and software," the brief states.

"It made possible the emergence and success of many robust industries we now take for granted -- such as industries for mainframes, PCs, peripherals (storage, modems, sound cards, printers, etc), workstations/servers, and so on -- by ensuring that competitors could challenge established players and advance the state of the art."

For instance, the brief argues, the spread of affordable PCs was made possible because IBM held no copyright on its BIOS system, allowing competitors such as Compaq and Phoenix to create their own BIOS implementations and build PC clones. The open nature of APIs was also essential to the development of the Unix OS, the C programming language and the open protocols on the Internet, the brief says.

"Should the court reverse Judge Alsup's well-reasoned opinion, it will hand Oracle and others the ability to monopolize any and all uses of systems that share their APIs. API creators would have veto power over any developer who wants to create a compatible program," the brief states.

Oracle responded sharply. "I guess everyone is having collective amnesia about the uncontroverted testimony that Android is not compatible with Java," said spokeswoman Deborah Hellinger.

At trial, Oracle argued that the complex structure and syntax of the Java APIs make them a creative work worthy of protection. Google knowingly copied the APIs, it said, and has since made billions of dollars from the success of Android, which is now the world's top-selling smartphone operating system.

James Niccolai covers data centers and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow James on Twitter at @jniccolai. James's e-mail address is james_niccolai@idg.com

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