Implication of Copyrightable APIs
Software Engineering apis
Published: 2020-10-15
Implication of Copyrightable APIs

The Supreme Court’s eight justices on Wednesday seemed skeptical of Google' argument that application programming interfaces (APIs) are not protected by copyright law. The high court was hearing oral arguments in Google’s decade-long legal battle with Oracle. Oracle argues that Google infringed its copyright in the Java programming language when it re-implemented Java APIs for use by Android app developers.

The stakes in the case are high for Google, which could owe Oracle billions of dollars in damages. More importantly, an Oracle win could reshape how copyright law treats APIs, giving incumbents the power to lock out competitors who want to build compatible software.

Google’s Supreme Court faceoff with Oracle was a disaster for Google

The implications of a Supreme Court ruling that APIs are copyrightable are earth-shattering. Off the top of my head, here are some of the products and services that may be impacted given such a ruling:

  1. Basically all flavors of Unix (including Linux), as they each emulated a common programming interface and toolset
  2. The Windows Subsystem for Linux, as it supports the Linux binary executable format. Same for FreeBSD’s Linux binary compatibility layer.
  3. Samba, as it reimplements Microsoft’s proprietary SMB protocol
  4. Nearly every game console emulator (e.g. Nestopia), as they reimplement each console’s proprietary API
  5. Google’s Cloud Storage XML API, as it replicates the Amazon S3 API
  6. Wine (Windows Emulator), as it replicates the Win32 API set

No doubt there are thousands of additional examples.

APIs define the public or external contract for a system. They are completely independent from the implementation of said system, which is copyrightable. I simply do not understand how APIs can be copyrighted, any more than I can understand how one could copyright the lightbulb socket.