The US Supreme Court has sided with Oracle in a dispute with Google on whether APIs, the specifications that let programs communicate with each other, are copyrightable, in a ruling that could have a profound impact on the digital economy.
Nothing about the API (application programming interface) code at issue in the case materially distinguishes it from other computer code, which is copyrightable, wrote Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli in a filing in the U.S. Supreme Court.
The court had earlier asked for the government's views in this controversial case, which has drawn the attention of scientists, digital rights group and the tech industry for its implications on current practices in developing software.
Although Google has raised important concerns about the effects that enforcing Oracle's copyright could have on software development, those concerns are better addressed through a defense on grounds of fair use of copyrighted material, Verrilli wrote.
Some 77 scientists, including Vinton "Vint" Cerf, Internet pioneer and Google's chief Internet evangelist, and Ken Thompson, co-designer of the Unix operating system, submitted to the court last year that the free and open use of the APIs has been both routine and essential in the computer industry since its beginning, and depended on the "sensible assumption" that APIs and other interfaces were not copyrightable.
Oracle accused Google of infringing its copyrights and patents related to Java in its Android operating system. Google was charged with copying the structure and organization of the Java API, in part to make it easier for developers, familiar with Java, to write programs for the mobile operating system.
The Internet giant, however, holds that the API code is not entitled to copyright protection because it constitutes a "method of operation" or "system" under Section 102(b) of the Copyright Act.
Judge William Alsup of the District Court for the Northern District of California ruled in 2012 that the APIs were not copyrightable, but this decision was overturned in May last year by the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which ruled that the Java API packages can be copyrighted. Google then asked the Supreme Court to review the Federal Circuit decision.
The uncopyrightable "method of operation" or "system" or "process" under Section 102(b) is the underlying computer function triggered by the written code, according to Verrilli. "The code itself, however, is eligible for copyright protection," he wrote.
The government in its filing asked the Supreme Court not to review the case and recommended its remand over Google's fair-use defense to the lower court.
"While we're disappointed, we look forward to supporting the clear language of the law and defending the concepts of interoperability that have traditionally contributed to innovation in the software industry," Google said in a statement Tuesday, in response to the government filing.
The Computer & Communications Industry Association said in a statement that the Justice Department got it wrong. Imposing legal constraints on the interoperation between programming languages can lead to serious competitive harm, it added.
Oracle said that the solicitor general's brief agrees with the Federal Circuit's decision and affirms the importance of copyright protection as an incentive for software innovation. The Federal Circuit had unanimously rejected Google's arguments that software is entitled to less copyright protection than other original, creative works, it added.