US Supreme Court Rules Re-Implementing An API Is Fair Use

The US Supreme Court has ruled that re-implementing an API is Fair Use. It finally puts an end to the Apple vs Oracle case.

It was a long and winding case that has huge ramifications for developers everywhere. Can you claim copyright infringement for re-implementing an API (Application Programming Interface). Programmers were certainly getting nervous when an appeals court ruled that it is copyright infringement.

An API allows users to call computer functions. For example, if we embed a YouTube video, we use what is known as an “iframe”. The iframe calls up code from YouTube to be able to embed a YouTube video. Here’s an example of this from a video we recorded a while back:

So, what we did is an example of utilizing an API. Services generally offer code to permit this to happen in the first place. It benefits every party involved. Users on this site get to see a cool video right on the site itself and YouTube gets to have more users using the site as a result. While API’s are not exclusive to website codes, it is probably among the more familiar to the general public. The legal question more or less being asked is, by embedding a YouTube video like we did above, did we violate copyright law and violate YouTube’s intellectual property?

When an appeals court ruled that such an action is copyright infringement, you can very easily see the enormous consequences this has. The implications were, unsurprisingly, keeping coders awake at night. So, unsurprisingly, Google urgently appealed the case partly because they were the ones being sued by Oracle back in January.

Seeing the implications of what the appeals court could unleash onto the world of technology, the electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) submitted a legal brief supporting Google. The brief argued, among other things that the ruling ignored clear and specific language in the copyright statute that excludes copyright protection for procedures, processes, and methods of operation.

The Supreme Court heard the case and sided with Google. As a result, the EFF is celebrating the ruling as a victory for Fair Use:

In a win for innovation, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that Google’s use of certain Java Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) is a lawful fair use. In doing so, the Court reversed the previous rulings by the Federal Circuit and recognized that copyright only promotes innovation and creativity when it provides breathing room for those who are building on what has come before.

This decision gives more legal certainty to software developers’ common practice of using, re-using, and re-implementing software interfaces written by others, a custom that underlies most of the internet and personal computing technologies we use every day.

The Court concluded that “where Google reimplemented a user interface, taking only what was needed to allow users to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program, Google’s copying of the Sun Java API was a fair use of that material as a matter of law.”

The Supreme Court left for another day the issue of whether functional aspects of computer software are copyrightable in the first place. Nevertheless, we are pleased that the Court recognized the overall importance of fair use in software cases, and the public interest in allowing programmers, developers, and other users to continue to use their acquired knowledge and experience with software interfaces in subsequent platforms.

So, the world of innovation and development is now breathing a sigh of relief. There is now no longer a fear that re-implementing an API will violate copyright law. Innovation can continue in both the software development world and the web development world. For a lot, this does represent a restoration of sanity in the process.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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