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Can APIs be Protected Under Copyright Law?

A Pivotal 2020 US Case Law

Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc happens to be a landmark decision which deals with the intersection of technology (software, to be more precise) and Intellectual Property Rights. In this case, Oracle had earlier sued Google for copying some parts of the Java programming language’s application programming interfaces (APIs) and about 11,000 lines of source code, which are owned by Oracle, for its early versions of the Android operating system. After a series of trials starting from the district court of the US, the Supreme court has finally decided upon this dispute. It was held that this act of copying some parts API made by Oracle was fair use under the copyright laws. The court arrived at this decision after considering some important points, briefly mentioned below:

  1. Although the APIs are capable of being protected under copyright laws, Google copied only a minuscule amount from the said code.
  2. The extent of copying by Google was restricted to a limit as required to include necessary tasks in an android device.
  3. Concerning the substantiality in the copied material, it was held that Google did not copy anything unique to the implementation of API by Oracle. It used only that part of the code, which was now familiar with systems and engineers.

Apart from the technical aspects, the court also noted the actual intent of copyright laws. It was made clear that the protection under such laws shall not grant more economic power/benefits than what is necessary to preserve the incentive of uniqueness in a creation. This judgment will have a bearing on the dynamic area of law, that is Intellectual Property. To understand the effects of this judgment, it is important to discuss the basics of API and its protection under Copyright laws.

APIs and Their Copyrightability

A lot has been spoken about APIs in this case. APIs (which are made through a set of codes) enables the creation of an application to access data and features of other applications, services, or operating systems. They act as a connection/bridge between two systems or programs, in order to deliver the responses from both sides. APIs can benefit the user by integrating the external and internal systems, enhancing the functionality, reducing the operational costs, and improving the organizational security. A user requires an API to do any of the following:

  1. Sending an instant message to someone over WhatsApp, since the platform acts as an intermediary between your mobile and the recipient’s device.
  2. While using your favorite e-commerce site, you add certain items to your shopping cart and the cart gets updated. It is an application of API, which tells the website about your action of updating your cart.
  3. While using a payment gateway during any of your purchases, you are availing of the services offered by the bank through a third-party API.

Now, the main point of contention in this case was whether APIs were copyrightable or not. The district court held that APIs were not eligible for protection under copyright laws, stating that “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.” However, the Federal Circuit Court reversed this decision. As per that judgment, a computer program was considered to be copyrightable if the expression was original to the programmer. Since Google had already accepted that the Java API was an original creation of Oracle, there was no other mandatory point remaining in the checklist. It was firmly established that the ‘sequence, structure, and organization’ of APIs are copyrightable, and that Google’s copying of the program did not qualify as an exception under de minimis. The Supreme Court notably took the middle ground between the two decisions, generally agreeing with the principles laid down by the Federal Circuit Court, but deciding that this particular instance was not a case of infringement.

The Effects of This Decision

This decision will hold paramount importance shortly, owing to the increased application of APIs in daily life and computer technology. The judges must have had a dilemma while deciding between the prevention of interoperability as a defense and restricting the incentive for innovation in the software industry. Though the decision has been well-accepted by the groups which are involved in using the mechanism of interoperability and reverse engineering, the opposite parties are worried about this being a defense for copying the codes substantially. In short, the case at hand has uncovered several grey areas which are there at the intersection of the software industry and IPR. Below are some of the evident implications of this decision:

  1. Interoperability has become a common practice among the community of developers. In such a scenario, this judgment will be generally favorable to them, due to the broader view adopted to conclude upon the fair use by Google.
  2. This decision will potentially increase the number of infringement suits, where a company might be dragged into court for using certain codes/programs which might have been considered to be open to use otherwise.
  3. This decision may also defeat the IP protection strategies adopted by the creators to restrict the unauthorized reproduction of already-existing codes.

Whichever way the tech industry decides to take matters, it’s clear that we are in an era of grey areas caused by increasing advances in technology, and Google LLC v. Oracle is not likely to be the only case to redraw the frontiers of IP protection.

Author: Unnat Akhouri, Legal Intern at PA Legal.

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