ORCL vs GOOG: the $9 billion API

What's this? Two posts about the legal intricacies of copyright in the space of a fortnight? Before you unsubscribe from this definitely-not-a-law-blog, please read on because the case of Oracle America, Inc vs Google, Inc is no ordinary copyright fight. For a start, the damages sought by Oracle in this case [edit: could] exceed $9 billion. And if they win, all hell is going to break loose.

The case is interesting for some other reasons besides the money and the hell breaking loose thing. I'm mostly interested in it because it's about open source software. Specifically, it's about Android, Google's open source mobile operating system. The claim is that the developers of Android copied 37 application programming interfaces, or APIs, from the Java software environment that Sun released in 1995 and Oracle acquired in its $7.4 billion acquisition of Sun in 2010. There were also claims that they copied specific code, not just the interface the code presents to the user, but it's the API bit that's interesting.

What's an API then?

You might think of software in terms of applications like the browser you're reading this in, or the seismic interpretation package you use. But this is just one, very high-level, type of software. Other, much lower-level software runs your microwave. Developers use software to build software; these middle levels contain FORTRAN libraries for tasks like signal processing, tools for making windows and menus appear, and still others for drawing, or checking spelling, or drawing shapes. You can think of an API like a user interface for programmers. Where the user interface in a desktop application might have menus and dialog boxes, the interface for a library has classes and methods — pieces of code that hold data or perform tasks. A good API can be a pleasure to use. A bad API can make grown programmers cry. Or at least make them write a new library.

The Android developers didn't think the Java API was bad. In fact, they loved it. They tried to license it from Sun in 2007 and, when Sun was bought by Oracle, from Oracle. When this didn't work out, they locked themselves in a 'cleanroom' and wrote a runtime environment called Dalvik. It implemented the same API as the Java Virtual Machine, but with new code. The question is: does Oracle own the interface — the method names and syntaxes? Are APIs copyrightable?

I thought this case ended years ago?

It did. Google already won the argument once, on 31 May 2012, when the court held that APIs are "a system or method of operations" and therefore not copyrightable. Here's the conclusion of that ruling:

 The original 2012 holding that Google did not violate the copyright Act by copying 37 of Java's interfaces. Click for the full PDF.

The original 2012 holding that Google did not violate the copyright Act by copying 37 of Java's interfaces. Click for the full PDF.

But it went to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, Google's petition for 'fair use' was denied, and the decision was sent back to the district court for a jury trial to decide on Google's defence. So now the decision will be made by 10 ordinary citizens... none of whom know anything about programming. (There was a computer scientist in the pool, but Oracle sent him home. It's okay --- Google sent a free-software hater packing.)

This snippet from one of my favourite podcasts, Leo Laporte's Triangulation, is worth watching. Leo is interviewing James Gosling, the creator of Java, who was involved in some of the early legal discovery process...

Why do we care about this?

The problem with all this is that, when it come to open source software and the Internet, APIs make the world go round. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation argued on behalf of 77 computer scientists (including Alan Kay, Vint Cerf, Hal Abelson, Ray Kurzweil, Guido van Rossum, and Peter Norvig, ) in its amicus brief for the Supreme Court... we need uncopyrightable interfaces to get computers to cooperate. This is what drove the personal computer explosion of the 1980s, the Internet explosion of the 1990s, and the cloud computing explosion of the 2000s, and most people seem to think those were awesome. The current bot explosion also depends on APIs, but the jury is out (lol) on how awesome that one is.

The trial continues. Google concluded its case yesterday, and Oracle called its first witness, co-CEO Safra Catz. "We did not buy Sun to file this lawsuit," she said. Reassuring, but if they win there's going to be a lot of that going around. A lot.

For a much more in-depth look at the story behind the trial, this epic article by Sarah Jeong is awesome. Follow the rest of the events over the next few days on Ars Technica, Twitter, or wherever you get your news. Meanwhile on Agile*, we will return to normal geophysical programming, I promise :)


ADDENDUM on 26 May 2016... Google won the case with the "fair use" argument. So the appeal court's decision that APIs are copyrightable stands, but the jury were persuaded that this particular instance qualified as fair use. Oracle will appeal.