Computer Scientists Ask Supreme Court To Rule APIs Can’t Be Copyrighted

from EFF

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a briefwith the Supreme Court of the United States today, arguing on behalf of 77 computer scientists that the justices should review a disastrous appellate court decision finding that application programming interfaces (APIs) are copyrightable. That decision, handed down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in May, up-ended decades of settled legal precedent and industry practice.

Signatories to the brief include five Turing Award winners, four National Medal of Technology winners, and numerous fellows of the Association for Computing Machinery, IEEE, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The list also includes designers of computer systems and programming languages such as AppleScript, AWK, C++, Haskell, IBM S/360, Java, JavaScript, Lotus 1-2-3, MS-DOS, Python, Scala, SmallTalk, TCP/IP, Unix, and Wiki.

“The Federal Circuit’s decision was wrong and dangerous for technological innovation,” EFF Intellectual Property Director Corynne McSherry said. “Excluding APIs from copyright protection has been essential to the development of modern computers and the Internet. The ruling is bad law, and bad policy.”

Generally speaking, APIs are specifications that allow programs to communicate with each other. So when you type a letter in a word processor, and hit the print command, you are using an API that lets the word processor talk to the printer driver, even though they were written by different people.

More here.

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4 Responses to Computer Scientists Ask Supreme Court To Rule APIs Can’t Be Copyrighted

  1. Rebecca J. November 12, 2014 at 10:43 am #

    Whenever there is a controversial issue and there is no previous statute or common law, the legal systems and courts need to be very careful how they make a decision for the case. This is no exception for the case brought to Northern District of California when Oracle sued Google for the use of Java APIs in its creation of Android OS. The court ruled in favor of Google saying that APIs could not be copyrighted, so Google had the right to use and improve the software. However the Federal Circuit disagreed and ruled that APIs can be copyrighted. The case is still being debated and now the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has filed a brief with the Supreme Court to make APIs not protected under copyright laws.

    The whole premises behind this trial is whether or not APIs are protected under copyright laws, however I had no idea what APIs were until this article. APIs are application-programming interfaces, which is a huge part of our daily interaction with our technological devices. Application-programming interfaces are the languages that transfer “1s” and “0s” into actual words and pictures that we can understand and probably one of the most famous programming languages is Java. Java controls a huge portion of the market and according to Java, “97% of Enterprise Desktops Run Java” and it is the “#1 Choice for Developers” and “#1 Development Platform” ( Since Java is so popular, it comes as no surprise that they would want to protect its software creation and want to have it protected under copyright law; however is that possible and beneficial to the entire technological industry?

    The reasoning behind opposing APIs to be protected under copyright laws is because technologists say it is key to build off of already created API systems to improve the performance, while still allowing systems to communicate with each other regardless of if different people wrote it. Not only that, but if Java holds as much of the market as they say and then copyrights the software, then it creates a monopoly for that company and discourages commerce and entrance into the software industry. Barring entrance into an industry and creating a monopoly is against our governments policy and many times the have struck down merging contracts because it would have created a monopoly in the market. With all of this said, the Supreme court really needs to think carefully and weigh which is more important, copyrights for APIs or monopolies?

  2. Tyler November 13, 2014 at 5:56 pm #

    In this article, the author explains that the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a brief with the US Supreme Court. In the brief, the EFF argued that the Supreme Court justices should review a decision by an appellate court which found that application programming interfaces (APIs) are copyrightable. According to the article, the appellate decision had disrupted many years of established precedent and industry practices, and may very likely endanger continued technological innovation. Prior to the appellate decision, individuals and companies were able to re-implement and add onto previous APIs, thus allowing widespread compatibility among various devices, while also allowing a substantial degree of competition among established companies and newer organizations. Basically, the brief explains that the reason the technology industry has become as robust and innovative as it is today, is because of a lack of copyrights related to APIs.
    I agree that the appellate court’s decision is extremely detrimental to continued technological innovation. Based on the old adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” the established legal precedent which allowed various companies to use the same APIs without the threat of litigation has already proven to be an excellent source of innovation and competition in the technology sector. That being said, if the Supreme Court agrees to hear the case, I do not think that they should rule in such a way that prevents copyrights on APIs from ever being enforced. Such a decision would establish a precedent that is far too inflexible to account for potential future issues. Instead, I feel that a better precedent would be to allow the individual companies who originally designed the APIs to determine for themselves whether or not they would like to copyright their products. In the long run, such a decision will reveal which option is more profitable for companies: to freely distribute or selectively restrict.

  3. Andrew Engel November 13, 2014 at 9:13 pm #

    Unfortunately, this article does not touch upon both sides of the argument fairly. Though mentioning, it does not explain why the ruling was made in the first place. Another thing it does not mention, perhaps on purpose, is that the route the EFF took to claim it was upended was a writ of certiorari. Since the ruling was only making rules for the future, and not penalizing anybody for the past, a writ of certiorari would not apply. I think the Supreme Court will elect to keep the original ruling.
    With that said, I hope the Supreme Court doe consider and eventually reverse the ruling. The computer scientists are definitely correct in pointing out that this ruling would make things incredibly difficult for all software and hardware companies/manufacturers to function. If that is the case, it is very possible that such technology could increase significantly in cost,, and therefore in price which could be very harmful given that computers are used by such a high percentage of the population.

  4. Elizabeth Donald November 14, 2014 at 4:53 pm #

    In this article, Corynne McSherry and Michael Barclay explain a recent decision by the Federal Circuit Court to enforce copyrights for Java APIs. APIs are specifications that allow different programs to communicate with each other. They are clearly an essential aspect in many forms of technology. Until recently, APIs were not subject to copyright laws because they were seen as crucial in the advancement of innovation. It was for this reason that Judge William Alsup of the Northern District of California originally ruled that the Java APIs were not to be subject to copyright.
    If the ruling of the Federal Circuit Court is upheld, innovation will suffer many implications. In the future, competing companies will have to write their own programs, making sure they are different from those of their competitors. This will serve as a great impediment for the technological industry. If one company had already written the program in the most efficient way, other companies will have to find a new way to write the program that may not be as successful. It is also of concern what consequences this decision will have upon already invented technologies that use Java APIs. As the case was sent back to determine if Google’s use of Java’s APIs was lawful, a decision against Google will cause for great damage to the company and might call for an end to the manufacture of some of Google’s most successful products.
    Andrew Engel states that the Supreme Court decision will only apply to future cases. But if this is the case, why was the case sent back down to the trial court to determine the legality of Google’s use of the APIs? And if Google’s use of the APIs is found unlawful, other companies must enforce copyrights for their APIs and other technological programs as well.
    In this way, copyrights on programs such as the APIs are anti-competitive. They allow for certain companies such as Oracle to dominate the field. This will also result in damage to the customers and the public in general. Copyrights over technological programs will prevent innovation which the government spends a great deal of money on producing. The U.S. government allocates a certain amount of money in the fiscal budget for technological advancement and research but a ruling that prevents innovation is counterproductive. The Supreme Court should take this into consideration when deciding on the brief.

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