As technology evolves, software copyright laws become fuzzy and open to interpretation. This year we’ll see the Supreme Court review the legal status of a copyright dispute related to Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) between Oracle and Google. Previously the ruling was in favour of Oracle, who accused Google of infringing the copyright of the Java API, for its reimplementation in the Android OS.
An API is “a set of functions and procedures allowing the creation of applications that access the features or data of an operating system, application, or other service”. In other words, APIs are about creating interaction and connecting things that were not previously connected. Successful APIs foster fruitful communities which bring the underlying technology one step further, by creating useful derived works or by (re)implementing it in novel ways. Most software companies try to make their products more open and easy to integrate and use with other products. This usually increases the adoption rate, the overall popularity, and appreciation for the product. This type of openness is meant to build bridges between companies and encourage partnerships.
At the end of the day, we all want to make money. Whereas some are in the business of building bridges others seem to profit more by building walls. The world is divided like that. Being all alone and surrounded by high walls can make you vulnerable to scrutiny. As a consequence of their own actions, Oracle is now accused of copying Amazon’s S3 API. Of course, different shades of grey come to light when you find yourself accused of a crime you previously reported. Oracle has argued that using an API is not related to reimplementation disqualifying it as an infringement of copyright.
API copyright wars could create a legal minefield of gotchas. This generates confusion and spreads fear amongst consumers. Sure, you should always ask for permission to use an API, but giving companies monopoly power over the competition by means of copyright law defies the purpose of the law itself. Let us not forget that these laws are made to protect the creator from abuse and not to empower the creator to abuse.