What The Oracle-Google Copyright Fight Has To Do With Klingon… And Lots Of Other Innovations

from the a-language-is-only-useful-if-it's-shared dept

We’ve already written plenty on the Obama administration’s absolutely ridiculous filing in the Oracle/Google case concerning the copyrightability of APIs. As we noted, the entire filing shows what appears to be a willful misunderstanding of the difference between “software” and an “API.” That’s problematic on many levels. In trying to explain this, we kept describing the API as something of a “recipe” — which is not covered by copyright — and how that’s different from the actual food. But Charles Duan has come up with potentially an even better comparison, noting that an API is quite like an invented language, and wondering what would happen if the creators of Klingon tried to claim copyright against anyone using Klingon.

…according to Oracle, copyright can protect a language and prevent others like Google from speaking it.

That?s the connection of the Oracle v. Google case to Klingon and other constructed languages like Esperanto or Lojban: If broadly read, the ruling against Google, which is where the case currently stands, could also deem the speaking of such languages to be copyright infringement.

This is actually quite interesting. Getting beyond Klingon, Duan mentions Lojban, which is a kind of proof of the problems this kind of thing can cause. Lojban is actually a re-created language, building off the ideas in Loglan, whose creators tried to lock it up claiming ownership. In that case, the creator, James Brown, tried (and failed) to use trademark law to block others from using “his” language.

But this is a key thing: languages are only useful if they’re shared and used more widely. The idea of locking up a language itself under copyright is almost nonsensical, but that’s exactly what the appeals court did and it’s what the Obama administration has now advocated for, based on a failure to understand the difference between an API and software.

And, of course, the impact on this goes beyond “languages” as Duan notes:

And it?s not just the linguists and Trekkies who should be concerned.

Invented languages are the foundation of all sorts of innovation. Most prominently, computer networking technology depends on languages, like the Wi-Fi protocol, so that multiple computers can communicate and understand one another. Those protocols also include formally defined commands (vocabularies) and rules of operation and syntax (grammars), making them languages almost exactly on par with the Java API. Other fields, such as medicine, engineering, and sports, rely on well-known jargon for efficient communication of specialized concepts.

Languages and APIs are how we communicate. Languages may be how humans communicate with one another, while APIs are often how computers communicate with one another. Copyrighting the very language of communication seems not just nonsensical but actively counterproductive when you think about it that way.

It’s just tragic that the lawyers working for the President didn’t think about it that way.

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Companies: google, oracle

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Comments on “What The Oracle-Google Copyright Fight Has To Do With Klingon… And Lots Of Other Innovations”

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lord binky says:

How much more clear do you have to be when you say copyright does NOT apply 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 work”

If you write a dictionary and copyright it, then people can’t just outright copy the work, but there is NOTHING in copyright protections that prevents others from using the information in the dictionary to use the words described by the copyrighted work.

DogBreath says:

This town needs an enema...

Time for me to write up an API that controls how those in government receiving “donations” to whatever campaign, reelection, benefit or fundraiser they collect in their coffers, in which I will now demand and collect copyright license royalties for the use of my API recipe (for those in Washington keeping score, remember copyright is Life + 70 years after death, you only have Sonny Bono, Mickey Mouse and your eternal greed to blame for that one).

Lets see how long it takes for them to get their collective bovine excrement filled craniums turned around in the right, legal and lawful direction, when it starts costing THEM money!

ltlw0lf (profile) says:

Re: Re: This town needs an enema...

Better yet, refuse to licence it. Copyright gives you the right to lock it up completely.

That and derivative works are the two concepts of copyright I can’t stand. I’d be happy if copyright was used solely to provide an author with compensation for their work, but the ability to lock something in a vault, never to be seen again, and the ability to prevent others who in many cases have already purchased your work to embrace and extend (and not in the Microsoft way,) seem to be the exact opposite goals than what the Constitution spells out in the Copyright Clause.

Anonymous Coward says:

Oracle really didn't think this one through

Oracle really didn’t think this lawsuit through long term.

Short term Oracle might get a bunch of money from google. But long term, they guarantee they destroy their business, and possibly Java as well.

Who would want to use a programming language when a company that owns important API’s needed to use it shows themselves willing to sue anyone who doesn’t pay up a fee?

This is especially the case if pretty much everyone else that make important and very popular API’s announce they won’t put any restrictions on using their API’s and won’t charge anything for it.

Even if other programming languages aren’t as good as Java, people will still switch to them to avoid paying up to use API’s.

madasahatter (profile) says:

Re: Oracle really didn't think this one through

I suspect with the newer languages being developed (Go, Julia, and Rust for example) Java in particular and to a lesser extent C/C++ may see declining use anyway. When Java’s APIs are being aggressively litigated many smaller developer houses and solo developers may not pay up and look for some other language.

anonymous says:

Re: Oracle really didn't think this one through

Oracle didn’t require any fee for use of the APIs, they actually offer them completely for free under an open-source license, and then offer a commercial license for companies that want to use the APIs for their own proprietary purposes.

Google, a multi-billion dollar company took Oracle’s declaring code so that their coders wouldn’t have to learn different declaring code, and then deliberately made Android not interoperable with java.

Lawrence D’Oliveiro says:

Re: Re: then deliberately made Android not interoperable with java

That’s the peculiar thing. You’re trying to say they didn’t copy enough of Oracle/Sun Java. But a copyright lawsuit is supposed to be based on copying too much.

You have to decide which way you are going: did Google copy too much, or too little, of Java?

ArneBab (profile) says:

Re: Oracle really didn't think this one through

The paradox thing about this lawsuit is that it is not about money at all: Java is licensed under a free software license, so Google was always free to use it.

The license said however, that whoever uses the code has to make all additions compatible with the original license and put the derived work under the same free software license. It said that it is not allowed (for anyone but Oracle) to distribute unfree additions to Java.

Google however decided to put the android developer tools which use the Java API under a license which allows unfree additions.

For the free software community this an especially strange situation: If Oracle wins, then Java in Android must be completely free licensed. If Google wins, then the free software community has the right to replace unfree implementations of programming languages with free ones.

I hope Google wins in the end, because even though it is nice to have a strong copyleft language now, on the long term I consider it as more important to be allowed to replace any unfree tool with free ones without having to rewrite everything which uses the tool.

Lawrence D’Oliveiro says:

History Repeats Itself

The earliest case I can think of, of someone creating an artificial language, and then trying to control it with copyright, is Basic English, developed in the 1920s by C K Ogden.

… while nothing can dim the technical achievement which Basic English represents, politically it met with catastrophe. There was a moment during the second world war when Churchill was interested in it as a world language, but copyright laws were invoked to preserve its purity, prevent the rise of dialects, and so on, and this killed it (politically) far more effectively than either the arguments or the ridicule of its opponents could do. There is a moral here somewhere for all who seek proprietary rights in programming languages.

— Bryan Higman, A Comparative Study Of Programming Languages, 1967

JustShutUpAndObey says:

Re: History Repeats Itself

This is an excellent point.
For a language to have vitality, it must be capable of growing and changing.
One reason for the world-wide success of English (apart from British imperialism) is its great mutability and its relatively modern origin and mixed parentage. Extensive borrowing from other languages is a major feature of English and gives it a powerful advantage, IMHO.

Anonymous Coward says:

Google is the one locking it up

You talk about using copyright to lock up the language, but the fact is that Oracle offered its API under a completely free open-source license. The one condition being that if you take it, you have to make it open source. Google took it, and then purposefully made it proprietary to Android so that it is not interoperable with Java. And yet, ironically, Google is arguing that it shouldn’t be protected because doing so would harm interoperability.

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