Oracle's dangerous claim: APIs can be copyrighted

If Oracle succeeds in enforcing its hold on Java APIs, the software industry will drown in shameless legal challenges

I like being a contrarian, and I had hoped that a morning spent watching the Oracle/Google trial here in San Francisco would convince me that it's been overhyped and not worth the worry. No way.

This case is a big deal, and at best it will cost both sides millions of dollars that could have gone to something productive, like new jobs or product innovation. At worst, the current plague of patent and other intellectual property-related suits will metastasize, as trolls, lawyers, and tech companies looking for a shortcut to competitive advantage file a new breed of legal actions.

[ InfoWorld's Fatal Exception columnist explains what's at stake in the Oracle suit over Android's Java, and columnist Simon Phipps concludes, "If Oracle wins its Android suit, everyone loses." | Get the latest insight on the tech news that matters from InfoWorld's Tech Watch blog. | Keep up with the key tech news and analysis with the InfoWorld Daily newsletter. ]

In case you missed it: Oracle filed a lawsuit against Google in August 2010, charging that the Android mobile OS infringes Oracle patents and copyrights related to Java, which Oracle acquired when it purchased Sun Microsystems. The trial opened last week and is expected to take at least two months.

Here are a few of the most important realizations from my observation of this trial:

  • Much of Oracle's case is not about patents, but about copyrights. The standard for copyrights is much lower, and software, particularly open source, is very vulnerable to challenges on those grounds.
  • As many commentators have noted, the key to this case is a complex legal question: Can a company copyright an API? Thankfully, that point will not be decided by the jury, but by U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who appears to be quite savvy about technology and is running the trial with firmness and good humor.
  • Oracle's prize piece of evidence, a series of long-ago statements by Andy Rubin indicating that the use of Sun's Java language and APIs would have to be licensed by Google, doesn't stand up.

Copyrights lower the bar
It's old news to most of us that the patent system is broken and the technology industry is involved in a seemingly endless and terribly expensive multiplayer fight over patents related to smartphones. Just when you thought intellectual property litigation couldn't get much worse, along comes Oracle and its claim that Google has violated copyrights on 37 Java APIs.

That's an absolutely stunning claim. To begin with, APIs have never been viewed as copyrightable, says Julie Samuels, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation who has considerable experience litigating intellectual property issues. If Alsup decides that they are, "[i]t could absolutely change the game," she told me.

For all the problems we've seen in the last few years, the legal standards for obtaining and enforcing patents is relatively high. Even so, software patents are nearly five times more likely to be the subject of litigation than other patents. In fact, lawsuits surrounding software patents have more than tripled since 1999. (Samuels made that last point in an opinion piece on Wired.com.)

Copyrights, on the other hand, are much easier to get, says Samuels. If APIs can be copyrighted, we may well see a rash of suits claiming damages. What's more, we can expect a jump in behind-the-scenes demands for royalties as the price of using APIs that have always been in the public domain. Many licensing demands stay private, so we may not know about them, but will feel them when costs increase to reflect those royalties.

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