Cast your mind, if you will, back to 2010; do you recall what you were doing? Who you were, and how different your life was then to how it is now? A decade is a long time in the course of human life, and it’s a long time for a court case to wend its way up to the Supreme Court for a definitive declaration on the matter at hand.
A decade is how long Google and Oracle have been at odds over APIs, with the latter taking aim at the former’s alleged infringement of their copyright in creating the Android operating system. The case has gone through lower court rulings and appeals for years now, undoubtedly aided by the fact that both sides can afford to remain at a perpetual state of conflict. And while it may be unmooring for some to say goodbye to a case that has been with us as long as the iPad(!), we finally have some resolution.
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Google earlier this week, overruling a lower court in finding that the APIs copied by Google from Oracle’s Sun Java did in fact constitute fair use. The case itself was as contested as it was in part due to the fact that most of us non-programmers have very little idea about what an API actually is or does, if we have any idea at all. To the layperson, it’s undoubtedly easy to make the case that hundreds and thousands of lines of complex code represent a unique creation worthy of copyright.
Step back and research the matter, however, and your view may start to shift in favor of Google. An application programming interface allows for applications to communicate with one another, allowing for those applications to interact with both other programs and software and hardware. The device you’re reading this on and possibly considering using to write to me to explain how wrong and facile the above explanation was is doubtlessly operating with APIs all the time.
In parlance more understandable to dunderheaded liberal arts grads like myself, it’s a question of art and function; the former is clearly understood to be protected by copyright, while the latter is meant to be left open to use by all, lest the iterative creative process be hamstrung entirely. APIs, ideally, fall outside of copyright, and while the court didn’t go as far as to make any such declaration, instead choosing fair use as the frame for their decision, it’s still a positive that a court made up of so many...seasoned individuals was able to wrap their hands around the fundamentals of the issue and make a ruling that favors innovation over supposed rights.