There’s arguably never been a better time for technology companies and developers. The proliferation of billions of connected devices, coupled with the explosion of new platforms and services, has created countless business opportunities, many still yet to be exploited.
But thanks to increasingly complex litigation around intellectual property, namely patents, the technology industry has also arguably never had to deal with so many headaches.
The industry received some good news yesterday, however, as the judge in the Oracle-Google Java lawsuit ruled that APIs cannot be copyrighted. Previously, the jury in the case had decided that Google violated Oracle’s copyrights in mimicking the structure and organization of Java APIs in Android.
The jury’s decision, if left to stand, could have created an epic nightmare in the software world but yesterday Judge William Alsup reversed that decision, ruling that, under today’s copyright law, Google did not infringe upon Oracle’s Java copyrights. “So long as the specific code used to implement a method is different, anyone is free under the Copyright Act to write his or her own code to carry out exactly the same function or specification of any methods used in the Java API. It does not matter that the declaration or method header lines are identical,” he wrote in his decision.
In other words, because Google essentially implemented API functions using its own code and not copyrighted code from Oracle, the mere fact that it copied naming conventions didn’t mean it had infringed upon Oracle’s copyrights. “To accept Oracle’s claim would be to allow anyone to copyright one version of code to carry out a system of commands and thereby bar all others from writing their own different versions to carry out all or part of the same commands. No holding has ever endorsed such a sweeping proposition,” Judge Alsup wrote.
As The Verge’s Bryan Bishop notes, Judge Alsup’s decision is based heavily on the specifics of the Oracle-Google case, not sweeping generalizations. This, in theory, makes it more likely to stand up on the appeal that Oracle is almost certainly going to file. That means that this ruling, if it is upheld on appeal, doesn’t necessarily create a broad ‘you can’t copyright an API’ precedent. But it does look like it could go a long way to protecting the rights of companies and individuals to implement their own software interfaces without worrying that they could be found guilty of copyright infringement solely on basis of the naming and structure of their APIs.
That’s important, and as Google’s post-ruling statements says, “It’s a good day for collaboration and innovation.” The icing on the cake: Oracle has now officially gained nothing from its litigation, sending a reminder to companies: you can always litigate, but in the end, it’s often a losing proposition that distracts from the real way companies win in this business (building great products and services).