In a decision sure to discourage advocates of open-source and freely licensed software, a three-judge Federal Circuit panel recognized that certain parts of the Java programming language are protected by Oracle Corp copyrights.
The decision stems from a suit filed by Oracle in 2010, which partly alleges that Google knowingly cloned 37 Java language APIs – “hooks” that allow programs to interact with one another, like Disqus and Facebook – in the Android operating system. Oracle argued that such “hooks” were copyrightable, and therefore subject to protection under the law. The company initially sought $1 billion in damages and royalties on every Android device sold.
The Federal Circuit established in its decision that APIs and other parts of languages are subject to copyright, but did not determine the fair use issue at hand. Back in 2012, the jury had difficulty deciding whether or not Google’s use of the Java APIs were protected under fair use. U.S. District Judge William Alsup ruled that they were, but the Federal Circuit effectively negated that ruling by ordering further proceedings on the issue.
Should Oracle establish a precedent, the consequences would extend far beyond Android. Programs make use of third-party APIs all the time; companies could decide to begin demanding licenses, increasing the expense of development. And the decision could open the door for copyright of the more fundamental aspects of programming languages, like “structure, sequence, and organization” (terms Oracle used in its suit).
Needless to say, we’ll be watching this intently.