Oracle's surprise win in Java API case could make it harder for developers

The ruling that APIs can be copyrighted could make it a lot harder to take advantage of APIs with a direct license

With Oracle's surprise win in federal court today over its Java intellectual property being used without permission in Google's Android mobile platform, a whole new can of worms has been opened when it comes to use of APIs in software development. Android uses Java APIs in its own Dalvik virtual machine, and Google had argued that the use of those APIs didn't require Oracle's permission because it wasn't using the actual Java Virtual Machine.

Although Java is offered as an open source platform, which means it is supposed to be openly accessible for developers, Oracle had argued this openness did not extend to the API packages. "It is undisputed that the Java programming language is open and free for anyone to use," the appeals court ruled (PDF) today. "Except to the limited extent noted below regarding three of the API packages, it is also undisputed that Google could have written its own API packages using the Java language. Google chose not to do that. Instead, it is undisputed that Google copied 7,000 lines of declaring code and generally replicated the overall structure, sequence, and organization of Oracle's 37 Java API packages.... the 37 Java API packages at issue are entitled to copyright protection."

That ruling reverses a lower district court's order from two years ago that said APIs could not be protected under U.S. copyright law, which was Google's defense at the time. The appeals court today didn't actually rule that the Java APIs at issue are in fact protected; a new jury in the original district court will have to decide that. The appeals court instead ruled that they could be copyrighted, and that the previous court's decision to the contrary was wrong.

The court's ruling that APIs can be copyrighted could open a new front in the battle over intellectual property being waged in the tech industry. Most of the battles involve Android -- such as the years-old cases involving Samsung and Apple over patent claims -- but the emerging principles would affect software developers everywhere. All along, Oracle's case has caused fears in the software industry that it would open a legal quagmire for both Android and open source. Now, these fears could be at least partially realized.

"I am not a lawyer, but from a developer perspective, the idea of copyrighted APIs does nothing but introduce friction and uncertainty into the very integration efforts the developers use APIs to accomplish," said Jeffrey Hammond, a vice president at Forrester Research. "Devs will now need to worry about the potential for API lock-in via copyright, as alternative suppliers can't produce like-for-like substitutions without risk. I don't see how this is good for developers as it amps up the fear, uncertainty, and doubt about using third-party services."

"While the goal of avoiding fragmentation of Java that has been Oracle's stated intent in pursuing this has some merit, we're not comfortable with the idea that copyrighting APIs is the way to accomplish this," said Ed Anuff, vice president of product strategy at Apigee, whose service provides API access to developers over the cloud. "It's likely going to have the opposite effect, causing the proliferation of convoluted APIs for no other reason than to avoid the potential of legal exposure. That's a no-win proposition for anyone involved."

Not surprisingly, Oracle attorney Josh Rosenkranz is happy with the ruling. "Today, the federal circuit court affirmed that innovators can rest assured that their breakthroughs will be protected." Oracle did not respond to InfoWorld's inquiries over whether it might try to negotiate a settlement before a new trial began in the lower court. Google did not respond to InfoWorld's inquiries at all.

This story, "Oracle's surprise win in Java API case could make it harder for developers," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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