APIs and the Chilling Effect

APIs and the Chilling Effect

Late last month, the Justice Department weighed in on a controversial, yet extremely important topic and source of tech innovation: the ability for organizations to copyright APIs. The declaration stems from an ongoing battlebetween two tech giants, Google and Oracle, which started five years ago when Google, in order to make it easier for developers already familiar with Java, copied parts of the Java API for Android. Oracle claimed that the code should be its own intellectual property and subject to copyright protection, and thus sued Google for copying the language.

While a district judge initially sided with Google in 2012, a federal appeals court ultimately sided with Oracle stating, “code and the structure, sequence, and organization of the API packages are entitled to copyright protection.”

The decision, much maligned by the tech community, is now potentially headed to the Supreme Court, although the Justice Department’s recent recommendation siding with the latest judiciary decision may put that in jeopardy.

So how might copyrighted APIs affect business, and perhaps more importantly, innovation?

The most significant consequence of potentially restricted access to API language through copyright laws is the “chilling effect” on developers. APIs have rapidly become the building blocks of software development, allowing developers to take the same set of raw materials and turn them into innovative and differentiated offerings. Public APIs alone now number in the tens of thousands and are a key component to enabling digital business.

APIs allow companies to safely transport data, develop cloud-based programs and integrate services through various platforms. Programmers who fear basing their API definitions on existing APIs, or just taking inspiration from existing APIs exhibiting best practises on API definition and design, may now have fear of violating copyright. This would have an overwhelming negative impact on the interoperability of software and overall use of such services.

Beyond just developers and organizations, however, the decision ultimately has the capacity to hurt the consumer. APIs power a wide range of functionality users take advantage of on a daily basis, including everything from in app payments to location-based services to booking travel accommodations.

As WIRED recently discussed, while, “Google admitted that it copied the APIs, [it] claimed that the APIs shouldn’t be subject to copyright, since they’re the fundamental building blocks of new programming languages, operating systems, and other technologies.” Slate even likened the news to restricting a person from speaking a language.

If the final verdict declares APIs as copyrightable, it has the potential to create further lawsuits and upset unique cycles of innovation. One thing is for certain: the result of this case has far-reaching implications beyond the likes of just Oracle and Google.

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