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

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Copyrighting APIs is a dangerous step. As Google chairman Eric Schmidt told the jury Tuesday, programming languages and APIs are inseparable: "A language is not useful unless something can happen; without the APIs, nothing can happen."

InfoWorld readers understand that software isn't a widget; it's a series of building blocks, so I won't go on at length about this point. My colleague Neil McAllister explained that very well last week: "Oracle's argument is roughly akin to me claiming that because I own the copyright to a book of commonly used English phrases, publishers of Shakespeare need to pay me royalties. If it holds true for Java, it will hold true for any programming language, from any source. That could radically change the relationship between developers and platform vendors."

Smoking gun or popgun?
Oracle has made much of a 2005 email from Andy Rubin, head of the Google Android project, to Google co-founder Larry Page. In the message, Rubin said: "My proposal is that we take a license that specifically grants the right for us to open-source our product. We'll pay Sun for the license and the TCK. Before we release our product to the open source community, we'll make sure our JVM passes all TCK certification tests so that we don't create fragmentation."

Schmidt, who headed Java development as Sun's CTO, thought otherwise. Languages are in the public domain, and "[a license] was never an issue," he said. (In testimony on Wednesday, Rubin appeared to contradict himself, saying that at the time he didn't think a license for the APIs was necessary, according to reports.)

In so far as a license was needed, it would have covered only the familiar steaming coffee cup logo that symbolizes Java, he said. It's also worth noting that Sun's then-CEO Jonathan Schwartz in a blog post shown in the courtroom congratulated Google on the publication of an Android SDK, saying Google has "strapped another set of rockets to the community's momentum."

It's hard to know what Rubin was actually thinking at the time, but as a Google representative said to me, "He's not a lawyer." Neither is Schmidt, but given his position at Sun, where he worked for 14 years, you have to believe the man knows what he's talking about.

It's worth noting, that unlike Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, who appeared somewhat tentative when he testified last week, Schmidt struck me as absolutely calm and certain of his ground. I suspect the jury noticed that as well.

I'm certainly not predicting the outcome of this trial. But I am predicting that an Oracle win on the grounds that Google violated copyrightable APIs is a potential disaster for open source and the software industry as a whole.

Oracle could win the suit on other grounds; a number of patents are at issue as well as the copyrights. If that happens and it wins the $1 billion it is suing for, that's a huge waste of resources and could be another sign the tech bubble is about to burst.

Judge Alsup, I'm rooting for you.

I welcome your comments, tips, and suggestions. Post them here (Add a comment) so that all our readers can share them, or reach me at bill@billsnyder.biz. Follow me on Twitter at BSnyderSF.

This article, "Oracle's dangerous claim: APIs can be copyrighted," was originally published by InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bill Snyder's Tech's Bottom Line blog and follow the latest technology business developments at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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