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Google Asks Supreme Court To Overturn Crazy Ruling About Copyright In APIs


This is, of course, no surprise at all, but Google has officially asked the Supreme Court to fix the Federal Circuit's ridiculously bad ruling concerning copyright of APIs. Remember, this was the Federal Circuit's second awful ruling in this same case, both regarding the copyright status of APIs. The first bad ruling is still a travesty, in that a technically illiterate court couldn't comprehend that an API is like a recipe or instruction set that is not subject to copyright under Section 102(b) of the Copyright Act that explicitly states:

In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.

However, when you get a bunch of technically illiterate judges together, and show them snippets of an API, which makes no sense to them, they assume it's the same thing as software code -- which clearly is covered by copyright. On the second trip through the courts, the Federal Circuit messed things up again, insisting that Google's reuse of certain Java APIs could not be fair use.

Google is asking the Supreme Court to hear this issue and overturn the Federal Circuit -- something that the Supreme Court has done with some regularity over the past dozen years or so (though, mainly on patent issues, where the Supreme Court has been quite good, and not on copyright issues, where the Supreme Court has been mostly bad). While Google's cert petition officially clocks in at 343 pages, much of that is just the appendices, which include the various lower court rulings. What's key is that Google is asking the Supreme Court to review both of the Federal Circuit's awful rulings in this case:

The questions presented are:

Whether copyright protection extends to a software interface. Whether, as the jury found, petitioner’s use of a software interface in the context of creating a new computer program constitutes fair use.

I'd still argue that the first question is the more important one here, though if that goes sideways, a good ruling on the second question (as the jury in the district court found) would at least be some level of relief from insanity.

The opening to the cert petition sums everything up nicely:

If allowed to stand, the Federal Circuit’s approach will upend the longstanding expectation of software developers that they are free to use existing software interfaces to build new computer programs. Developers who have invested in learning free and open programming languages such as Java will be unable to use those skills to create programs for new platforms—a result that will undermine both competition and innovation. Because this case is an optimal vehicle for addressing the exceptionally important questions presented, the petition for a writ of certiorari should be granted.

There is, of course, no guarantee the Supreme Court will hear the case (indeed, as everyone likes to point out, the Supreme Court denies most such petitions). However, allowing this ruling to stand would do serious harm to software development, and would be a real shame.


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