Computer experts push Supreme Court to hear Google’s appeal in API copyright case

A group of 77 prominent computer scientists filed a petition with the Supreme Court on Friday, urging it to review a controversial ruling that allowed Oracle to claim copyright on APIs, which are an essential building block for many everyday software operations.

The so-called “friend of the court” brief, filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, comes in support of [company]Google[/company], which made its own appeal to the Supreme Court after losing a decision to [company]Oracle[/company] in May that shocked many in the tech community.

That decision, issued by the Federal Circuit appeals court, reversed a California judge’s conclusion that APIs (application programming interfaces) are not subject to copyright because they are simply a process or a method of instructing one computer program to communicate with another — as opposed to source code or literary works, which are considered original works protected by copyright.

In Google’s case, the company used APIs known as “Java method headers” for its Android operating system, so as to permit smartphone developers to build compatible features and programs. Even though Google wrote its own implementation code, Oracle sued the company for patent and copyright infringement over use of the Java APIs.

The EFF petition in support of Google is signed by a number of well-known names across the computer science community, including security researcher Bruce Schneier, Unix designer Ken Thompson and Harvard University CTO Jim Waldo.

The petition claims that sweeping API under copyright rules would stunt the development of a wide variety of services such as cloud computing and social media, and points to companies like Twitter, Facebook and Flipboard as among those that have benefited from copyright-free APIs. It warns that upholding the ruling means

API creators would have veto rights over any developer who wants to create a compatible program — regardless of whether she copies any literal code from the original API implementation. That, in turn, would upset the settled business practices that have enabled the American computer industry to flourish, and choke off many of the system’s benefits to consumers.

The Supreme Court has yet to rule on whether it will hear the appeal. It’s hardly a sure thing that it will do so since the nine Justices receive thousands of appeals a year and only accept a handful of them.

Still, Google’s request for an appeal hearing stands a better chance than most in light of the importance of the API issue to the tech sector as a whole, and because of larger uncertainty in lower courts over the extent to which copyright applies to software. The Supreme Court may also feel inclined to step in given that the ruling in question came from the Federal Circuit, a court whose repeated bungling of patent cases has put it on a short leash with the high court.

It will likely be weeks or months before the Supreme Court says if it will take the case.

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