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Last week, the team at Google asked the Supreme Court of the United States to review their copyright dispute with Oracle over the use of software interfaces. Unless the Supreme Court interferes, the industry will be stuck by the court’s decision, which states that the software interfaces used in creating new programs are not allowed under copyright law.

Software interfaces let computer programs interact with each other and push innovations by letting developers build technologies for different platforms. This is going to have a great impact on innovation across the computer industry. Voices from business, technology, academia, and the nonprofit sector have spoken out about the devastating impacts of this case.

The questions raised by Google to the Supreme Court are as follows:

  1. Whether copyright protection extends to a software interface?
  2. Whether, as the jury found, petitioner’s use of a software interface in the context of creating a new computer program constitutes fair use?

Google writes, “We support software developers’ ability to develop the applications we all have come to use every day, and we hope that the Supreme Court will give this case the serious and careful consideration it deserves.”  

According to the petition, “the Federal Circuit concluded that the merger doctrine does not restrict copyright protection for computer code necessary for interoperability as long as the original author could have written the code in more than one way.”

In 2008, Android was released and it helped developers overcome the challenges of limited memory, smaller processors, and short battery life. Android was built by following the practice of reusing software interfaces which provide sets of commands that make it easy to implement common functionality. Android came with a transformative platform while letting Java programmers use their existing skills to create new applications. The team at Sun Microsystems was happy with the release of Android and said, “It had strapped another set of rockets to the [Java] community’s momentum.”

After acquiring Java in 2010, Oracle sued Google for using the software interfaces. Oracle’s lawsuit for the right to control software interfaces might affect the community of developers who have invested in learning the free and open Java language.

Initially, a court ruled that the software interfaces, in this case, are not copyrightable, but that decision got overruled. A unanimous jury then pointed out that Google’s use of the interfaces was a legal fair use, but that decision got overruled.

According to the official blog post by Google, the U.S. Constitution has authorized copyrights to “promote the progress of science and useful arts,” not to impede creativity or promote lock-in of software platforms.

The petition reads, “Under Section 102(b), copyright protection does not extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such [original] work.”

Though according to a blog post by Electronic Frontier Foundation, EFF is in the support of Google and will be supporting the company’s petition. Even in May 2013, EFF filed an amicus brief on behalf of many computer scientists to Federal Circuit with the opinion that APIs should not be subject to copyright. This news has become a matter concern for many. In a statement to Ars, James Grimmelmann, a copyright scholar at Cornell University and former software developer, said, “The Federal Circuit’s decision threatens the continued vitality of software innovation.”

It seems even CCIA (Computer and Communications Industry Association) is in support of Google. CCIA writes, “It is hard to see why programmers who have learned the Java APIs should remain captives of Oracle because of an investment in learning made by the programmers and not by Oracle.”

Users are agitated by this news and they are not welcoming the idea of restricting the use of interfaces. This news has created a lot of buzz in the developer communities and most of the developers are worried.

One of the comments on HackerNews reads, “A reminder that what the law says, and what is a good idea, is not necessarily the same thing. The courts rule on the first point. Given that Oracle has prevailed in court on this before, one has to at least entertain the possibility that our law really allows for API to be copyrighted.” Another comment reads, “If companies can copyright an API and block competitors from implementing it, that would be very detrimental to the industry as a whole, for the sake of a few rent seekers profiting.”

Few users are with this new move. A comment reads, “It was not … intended to permit third party interoperability, since Google had made no substantial efforts to use them for the purpose of third party interoperability. (In fact it found that Google had tried to prevent interoperability with other Java and had previously been refused a license by Sun for that reason.) It was not transformative in the sense of a new platform either, since other Java smartphones predated Android.”

Some of the users are with the court and think this battle is about what’s legal and illegal. Another comment reads, “What I’m saying is that all the people who are trying to make the “but it’s bad!” argument are missing the point of the courts. Courts are not there to determine whether it’s good or bad, only whether it’s legal or illegal.

According to some users, Google could have called its resizable array as android.data.ResizableArray<E> but it named it java.util.ArrayList<E> and also copied the method signatures.

But the matter of concern for the developers is what if other companies also end up filing such cases. And what if Google is the next one to do so? One of the users commented, “Does anyone believe Google will not be doing the exact same thing with its (moribund) technologies in, say, 5-10 years?”

To know more, check out Google’s blog post.

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