Justice Department’s Opinion Casts Large Shadow Over
Google API Battle

IP News

The computer industry, in all its aspects, represents some of the greatest and most innovative technological advances in the history of the world. It also represents a pool of intellectual property that could be as large as any ocean in the world. There is no end to the different computer programming codes available. While some of these program codes are closely guarded and held as valuable intellectual property, there are other open-source codes that are available to everyone.

Justice Department Agrees With Lower Court

One key element of all computer codes is an application programming interface, or an API. An API is a set of tools, practices and patterns that are used to build software applications. APIs actually work together and allow different computer programs to communicate with one another. One of the great things about APIs is that they have mainly been open-source, which means they are free for everyone to use. However, that freedom could be in serious jeopardy after a recent opinion from the U.S. Justice department. That’s because the Justice Department has recommended that the U.S. Supreme Court turn away a case that places several tech giants, including Google, against Oracle.

Lower Court Sides With Oracle

The case has come to this point after a lower court ruled in favor of Oracle last year. In that decision a U.S. Federal Circuit appeals court ruled that Oracle could copyright the APIs for the programming language known as Java. That means Oracle can collect royalty fees from anyone using its APIs for Java and it can litigate against any company that uses these APIs without permission. The ruling was a major defeat for companies, such as Google, which use these APIs for software programming. Before the ruling, APIs, which are a basic building block for programming, had been considered outside the realm of copyright laws. Google, together with many supporters appealed the decision.

Big Impact on Software Developers

However, Google’s appeal might have suffered a big blow with the Justice Department’s recommendation to the Supreme Court. Earlier this year the nation’s highest court had asked the Obama administration for its opinion on the lower court’s ruling. Now it appears that the administration’s opinion is that these APIs should fall under the scope of copyright law. Should the Supreme Court decide not hear the case, or uphold the ruling if it does hear the case, the implications could be huge for the entire software industry.

Google Says Keep it Open

While Google is not arguing that the computer code can be copyrighted, it is basing its argument on how much of the code it actually used, which it claims was a very small portion of Oracle’s Java Standard Library. Therefore, Google’s argument is that all developers should continue to be allowed to utilize these bits of codes that are standard in the industry without facing copyright infringement implications. However, the lower court opined in its ruling that the deciding factor should be whether or not Google had a “fair use” right to actually use those APIs. The problem with the fair use concept is that it would force developers and programmers to walk a fine line when they use common pieces of code.

IP Monetization Implications

Ultimately, this decision could have a wide impact on IP monetization as well, as developers of APIs could use their technologies and copyrights to go after infringers. In addition, API creators could also license their copyrighted technology to developers and tech companies and thus create large additional revenue streams. The implications could be huge, and the affects could be far-reaching. The Supreme Court will most likely make its decision in the coming months. Stay tuned.