Can APIs be copyrighted?

Oracle says yes and Google says no, but who’s right? Here are 7 arguments in favor of copyrighting APIs — and 7 arguments against

Can APIs be copyrighted?
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The great billion dollar sumo match between Oracle and Google has been winding its way through the courts and is just about to reach the final round where the US Supreme Court will decide, among other things, whether an API can be copyrighted. There are a number of nuances to the case including accusations of pure plagiarism, but the tantalizing question about APIs and whether they might be copyrightable is giving programmers and their good friends, the lawyers, something to argue about for many billable hours.

On one side of the debate are programmers who are wondering if there’s one more legal gotcha that they’ve got to worry about when writing their code. Is this another reason to sit through more meetings with more lawyers? On the other side are the very same programmers who are putting in long days creating wonderful APIs and want to be rewarded with control over their baby. In other words, it’s an opportunity for the same lawyers to validate the programmers’ creativity and bring in licensing fees.

The case has been decided both in Google’s and in Oracle’s favor by different courts at different stages. In the latest ruling, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit decided “that Google’s use of the Java API packages was not fair as a matter of law” and started the process of assessing damages. Now the Supreme Court has scheduled hearings for March 24, 2020, and may finally decide the case. Maybe not forever, though, because forever is a long time.

The details of the battle between Google and Oracle will be of interest to lawyers and programmers who are immersed in Java development for the Android platform, but the larger question about copyrightability affects almost every programmer who calls hundreds or millions of APIs almost every day. Aside from a few coders working at the lowest level of machine code, APIs are a part of almost every programmer’s daily existence.

Should APIs be copyrighted? How much power should programmers have over others? Here are N different reasons that argue both for and against giving the programmers the power over their APIs.

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