EFF: Calling All Geeks – Help Explain To Judges Hearing Oracle v. Google Appeal Why Copyrighting APIs Is Such A Bad Idea

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The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is asking for help in explaining to the federal circuit why copyrighting APIs is such a bad idea.

The EFF’s request comes after a victory earlier this year when U.S.District Court Judge William Alsup ruled in the Oracle v. Google case that an API cannot be copyrighted. The ruling drew a sigh of relief from the tech community, but the victory was short-lived. Oracle has since appealed and now a three-judge panel will decide if Alsup’s ruling should stand.

Alsup was that rare judge who actually learned how to do computer programming. It’s doubtful that the three judges will share such a deep knowledge of how applications work and integrate with APIs.  This increases the stakes considerably. The EFF puts it this way when Alsup made his ruling:

Treating APIs as copyrightable would have a profound negative impact on interoperability, and, therefore, innovation. APIs are ubiquitous and fundamental to all kinds of program development. It is safe to say that all software developers use APIs to make their software work with other software.

The EFF needs help from software engineers, developers and those who benefit from APIs. They are looking for people who fall into either of the following two camps:

  • People who have integrated third-party APIs, made calls to APIs or used APIs for interoperability, competition, or innovation.
  • Those who have implemented an API that helped the API provider increase its user base or otherwise benefitted its developer community.

You can share your stories with the EFF through this email address: api@eff.org. The EFF will use the stories to explain to the judges why they should follow Judge Alsup’s lead and rule that APIs are not copyrightable.

Copyrighting APIs is ridiculous. Polymorphic Ninja compares it to someone saying they own the right to tomatoes. Tomatoes in themselves hold value, but if they were copyrighted it would be pretty damn hard to make tomato sauce.

Furthermore, while I think that APIs are creative efforts, they are merely components of the bigger picture.  On their own, they don’t do much.  If one were to make an analogy to cooking, the ingredients to a recipe would be APIs, and the dish would be the application.  And like ingredients, APIs can be home grown, or bought from a vendor.  But no single vendor has the right to claim they invented tomatoes and that nobody else can grow them, even if they were to somehow convince everyone they were the first to figure out how.  And if they could, how do you suppose that would impact the price of tomatoes?  How many suspicious allegations would get thrown about if someone came up with a fruit that’s similar, whether it was done honestly or not?  And how many great dishes that depend upon tomatoes would have never been invented because of the controlled availability and fear of legal action?  Or what if an artist could prevent other artists from using a particular brush stroke because they “invented it”.  APIs are nearly on that level of abstraction and expression.

In tech terms, copyrighted APIs would make it very hard for companies to innovate. It would isolate apps, making it difficult to develop a service like Box or Dropbox. It would be unlikely that apps could get integrated like they do now. Let’s just hope these federal judges will listen to what people have to say. If they don’t the result will be one gigantic mess where pretty much everyone is a loser.