Supreme Court Won't Hear Oracle v. Google Case, Leaving APIs Copyrightable And Innovation At Risk
from the dangerous-ruling dept
This is unfortunate, even if it was somewhat expected: the Supreme Court has now rejected Google’s request to hear its appeal over the appeals court decision that overturned a lower court ruling on the copyrightability of APIs. The lower court decision, by Judge William Alsup (who learned to code Java to understand the issues), noted that APIs were not copyrightable, as they were mere methods, which are not subject to copyright.
The appeals court ruling, by the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) (famous for getting patent cases wrong over and over and over again) didn’t just get things wrong, it got things laughably wrong, confusing the difference between APIs and software throughout, and quoting people entirely out of context (including taking things so out of context that it often pitted people on the same side against each other, solely because CAFC misread what they were saying). The case was appealed to the Supreme Court, and we were shocked and dismayed to see the Obama administration further reinforce the errors of the CAFC ruling in telling the Supreme Court not to hear the case. The filing by Solicitor General Donald Verrilli repeatedly confused software with APIs and insisted that there was really no difference between the two. That’s just wrong. It’s not a matter of debate. It’s just wrong.
One would have hoped that with a ton of computer science experts explaining to the Supreme Court how CAFC got things wrong, the Supreme Court might recognize that the Obama administration was confused, but for whatever reason, the Supreme Court has declined to hear the case.
This is dangerous. The world of software and innovation relies on the kind of interoperability and the ability to connect via things like APIs. As we’ve noted, this is like claiming you can copyright an entire language, rather than the creative works written in those languages. Making APIs proprietary and locked up puts a ton of innovation at risk.
As for Google and Oracle directly, this probably doesn’t matter much. They’re two giant companies, certainly. And now that the case returns to the lower court, they’ll either settle or fight it out over fair use (and hopefully win on that front as well). But saying fair use allows this is very, very different than saying there’s no copyright on the API. And for smaller companies this will have a tremendous ripple effect, and will undoubtedly lead to a slower pace of innovation. The kinds of touchstones that people build on will no longer happen. Under this ruling, it basically overrules previous rulings that said pull down menus were not copyrightable. But with this ruling in place, it’s hard to see how that’s still true. Expect to see a bunch of ridiculous lawsuits over minor copying of functions like that.
While this case may eventually be resolved on fair use grounds (or through settlement), there are still two potential areas of hope. First, the “precedential” power of this ruling is actually somewhat limited. CAFC precedents are more or less meaningless in this context. CAFC handles all patent cases, and the only reason it heard this case was because it started as a patent case, even though those issues were resolved much earlier. So, while CAFC has made this particular ruling, it does not mean that the 9th Circuit, where this case was actually heard has to abide by it. The appeals court for the 9th circuit could rule otherwise (though it is somewhat famous for its own nutty copyright rulings).
Perhaps if this issue returns to another appeals court, and that court gets it right, the issue will return to the Supreme Court with a clear circuit split. And by then, we can hope, the people staffing the Solicitor’s General office will finally include at least one person who understands the difference between code and APIs.
The really stunning thing in all of this is just how factually wrong many of the arguments were, and that the CAFC and Obama Administration bought them. These weren’t questions of interpretation or opinion. They just flat out got the facts wrong, based on an astounding level of ignorance about a rather basic concept of an API not being software. Just because they both look like “code” does not make them both code. It would be nice if the people actually making these decisions weren’t so easily fooled by their own ignorance.