Months later, we're still making sense of the Supreme Court's API copyright ruling

techcrunch.com
5 min read
fairly difficult
Given APIs' ubiquity and importance, it's understandable that all eyes were on the U.S. Supreme Court's April 5 ruling in Google LLC v. Oracle America Inc., which addressed two core questions.
APIs, or application programming interfaces, make the digital world go round. Working behind the scenes to define the parameters by which software applications communicate with each other, APIs underpin every kind of app — social media, news and weather, financial, maps, video conferencing, you name it. They are critically important to virtually every enterprise organization and industry worldwide.

Given APIs' ubiquity and importance, it's understandable that all industry eyes were on the U.S. Supreme Court's April 5 ruling in Google LLC v. Oracle America Inc., an 11-year-old case that addressed two core questions: Whether copyright protection extends to an API, and whether use of an API in the context of creating a new computer program constitutes fair use. Google lawyers had called it "the copyright case of the decade."

I was one of 83 computer scientists — including five Turing Award winners and four National Medal of Technology honorees — who signed a Supreme Court amicus brief stating their opposition to the assertion that APIs are copyrightable, while also supporting Google's right to fair use under the current legal definition.

To be clear: APIs should be free of copyright, no ifs, ands or buts.

We explained that the freedom to reimplement and extend existing APIs has been critical to technological innovation by ensuring competitors could challenge established players and advance the state of the art. "Excluding APIs from copyright protection has been essential to the development of modern computers and the internet," the brief said.

The Supreme Court ruling was a mixed bag that many observers are still parsing. In a 6-2 decision, justices sided with Google and its argument that the company's copying of 11,500 lines of code from Oracle's Java in the Android operating system was fair use. Great! At the same time, though, the court appeared to be operating under the assumption that APIs are copyrightable.

"Given the rapidly changing technological,…
Kin Lane
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