If Oracle prevails in its contention that APIs can be copyrighted, software developers could be stifled in how they work and innovate, say observers of the ongoing Oracle-Google trial, in which Oracle claims Google improperly used Java technology in the Android mobile software platform.
But unlike the copyright questions, the patent part of the lawsuit is more a garden-variety infringement claim, which would not have much impact on developers, these observers believe. Oracle and Google are facing off in federal court in San Francisco, with Oracle alleging Android infringes Java patents and copyrights Oracle acquired when it bought Sun Microsystems in 2010. Google has countered it built a "clean room" version of Java.
[ Also on InfoWorld: Bill Snyder calls Oracle's copyright claim "dangerous," and Simon Phipps concludes, "If Oracle wins its Android suit, everyone loses." | For more on software development, subscribe to InfoWorld's Developer World newsletter. ]
"The consequences obviously are very far-reaching" if the jury accepts Oracle's arguments about copyrights, said Scott Sellers, CEO of Azul Systems, which offers Java Virtual Machine technology. Such a decision could be precedent-setting beyond just Java, with the potential emergence of lawsuits over copyright use, he said. "You kind of have the troll effect," similar to patent trolls who file claims against patent usage, he added.
A Silicon Valley-based patent attorney who has done work for Azul concurs. "If Oracle prevails on [the copyright case], that would be problematic," attorney Lee Van Pelt said. "Developers should be able to communicate with an API that's been published," he said. Oracle's victory on this point potentially leaves developers at risk when writing code to be interoperable with a published API, he said.
"With respect to the copyright issue, the really interesting thing is whether you can copyright someone using one of your APIs, and that would present an issue because interoperability is very important," Van Pelt said. "As a developer, you want to know that if someone has published an API that you can write code to communicate with it and that seems to be appropriate."
Neither Van Pelt nor Sellers expects Oracle to win the copyright part of the case. An API, used to talk to programs, should be considered functional and not protected by copyright, said Van Pelt. Most in the industry believe APIs cannot be protected explicitly by copyright, Sellers said.
A former Sun official (who asked to remain anonymous) questioned the notion of APIs infringing copyright: "The background point to make about APIs is it's fairly well settled, I believe, in the software industry that the creative part of software is in the implementation. It's not in the APIs." It would be "very much a backward step for software development" if no one can build a reimplementation of a market-leading API, the former Sun employee said. Copyrighting APIs could have a chilling effect on independent innovation in America, the former Sun official added.
Meanwhile, the European Court of Justice ruled against copyright protection for computer program functionality and the language it is written in, as determined for a case in which SAS Institute had sued World Programming Limited. Oracle, though, might prevail on its copyright claims, the former Sun official said.
Regarding the patent aspect of the case, Van Pelt said Sun "did a good job of patenting the innovations that are in Java." Oracle has a better chance of winning the patent case, he said. The Oracle-Google example is an ordinary patent case without any extraordinary impact on developers, he argued. Sellers said Oracle prevailing on the patent case just means it would be exceedingly difficult to release a Java-like platform or language without using OpenJDK, the open source component of Java.
The Oracle-Google case has had its twists and turns, with former Sun CEOs Scott McNealy and Jonathan Schwartz offering opposing arguments about which company should prevail. McNealy took Oracle's side, while Schwartz leaned toward Google.
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