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Are software APIs copyrightable under current U.S. IP law?

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June 30, 2015

Earlier today, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Google's long-held appeal of Oracle's case against it in the matter of some Java API copyrights, leaving it up to a lower court to decide what (if any) damages Google owes Oracle.

Naturally, a lot of observers in the software and IT industry are studying this very closely since this could have a drastic impact on short and medium term developments.

Google was hoping the Supreme Court would weigh in on the issue of whether software APIs are copyrightable under current U.S. intellectual property law, but it now looks like the search giant won't have any luck on that one.

As is typical of the top court in the United States, the justices gave no comment on why they declined Google's petition, other than to say that "Justice Alito took no part in the consideration or decision."

But the court's judgment was not unexpected, and this is why it came as a bit of a surprise to some. Last month, the Solicitor General weighed in on the matter at the Supreme Court's request, saying the law Google cited in its appeal was "not the appropriate statutory provision" to address the issue.

The justices apparently agreed. The decision sends the matter back to the U.S. District Court, where a grand jury had earlier deadlocked on the issue of whether Google's infringement of Oracle's Java copyrights constituted fair use.

If it did, Google would likely owe no damages. For a while, it looked as though Oracle's copyright claim had been altogether dropped, at least that was the opinion of Judge William Alsup of the U.S. District Court of Northern California in 2012.

However, the U.S. Appeals Court overturned Judge Alsup's decision in May 2014. Rather than squabble it out further, Google decided to go straight to the highest court in the country, in hopes of getting the whole thing dropped. Now those hopes are gone.

At issue is Google's Android operating system and its accompanying SDK. Although Android doesn't use Oracle's Java Virtual Machine, its software development kit is based on the Java language and it implements many APIs from the Java Class Library.

From the get go, Oracle had argued that by aping the Java APIs, Google had violated Oracle-owned patents and copyrights. A jury cleared Google of patent infringement in 2012, but the copyright claim still lives on. And now you can understand Google's frustration.

The Supreme Court's decision to not hear arguments in the matter leaves it up to the lower court to decide how much to award Oracle of the "billions of dollars" it claims it is owed.

In an earlier go around, the two firms agreed on a nice, round figure – $0 – but that was likely out of expedience, so that the trial could proceed to its next phase.

The final outcome of the case could have far-reaching impact on the software industry, where the issue of the applicability of copyrights to computer code has been a matter of longstanding debate.

Asked for comment on the matter, a Google spokesperson told us-- "We will continue to defend the interoperability that has fostered innovation and competition in the software industry."

As of this morning, Oracle had not responded to a request for comment. We will keep you posted on these and other developments.

Source: Oracle.

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