APIs can’t be copyrighted, says judge in Oracle case

Oracle’s intellectual property lawsuit against Google has finally fallen apart completely with a ruling from the judge in the case, William Alsup, that APIs can’t be copyrighted.

It’s already seen its patent claims thrown out, but comtinued to pin its hopes on copyright allegations relating to 37 Java APIs. But now the judge has declared that these aren’t copyrightable, Oracle’s likely to end up with nothing.

“To accept Oracle’s claim would be to allow anyone to copyright one version of code to carry out a system of commands and thereby bar all others from writing their own different versions to carry out all or part of the same commands,” the judge wrote in his ruling. “No holding has ever endorsed such a sweeping proposition.”

The Copyright Act, he explained, covers only a ‘system or method of operation’, with others free to write their own implementation. Google had done exactly that: using some identical phrases in its code merely servied to maintain interoperability.

But Alsup noted that his decision didn’t mean that Java APIs were free for anybody to use without a license.

Oracle says it plans to appeal against the decision – although this could simply be throwing good money after bad. After spending millions on the case, it’s likely to end up with a few hundred thousand dollars at best, relating to other smaller copyright infringements.

But patent expert Florian Mueller thinks that the company may be in with a chance, as Alsup himself acknowledges that a new trial over fair use may be required.

“If the copied API material is held copyrightable on appeal, the question of whether this was fair use will have to be resolved either as a matter of law or by a new jury,” says Mueller in a detailed analysis of the case. “Fair use is a more suitable way to ensure that applications can be written for platforms like Java.”