APIs are not Copyrightable

The recent Google v. Oracle trial was watched closely by both software developers and copyright lawyers. Since I have have spent time in both of those worlds, I took a particularly keen interest on the proceedings. The first major decision made by the jury in the case was whether or not Google had infringed Oracle’s copyrights on the Java APIs, assuming that Oracle could in fact copyright such APIs. Though the jury found infringement by Google, the more important decision came from Judge Alsup a few days ago: APIs themselves are not copyrightable. A few weeks ago, the Electronic Frontier Foundation put up an excellent rundown of why APIs should not be copyrightable and Judge Alsup’s opinion agrees. Summaries of the ruling are available from both the EFF and Tyler Ochoa, writing on Eric Goldman’s blog. Mr. Ochoa’s summary on the merger doctrine is particularly strong:

Second, if there is only one way to implement a particular idea, procedure, process, system, or method of operation, then the merger doctrine says that the expression necessary to implement that idea is also not copyrightable. Judge Alsup relied on this proposition to hold that the declarations (programming syntax) for a particular method MUST be identical in order to function in the same way. The only thing that can differ is the name; everything else is specified by the requirements of the Java programming language, which all parties agreed is not copyrightable.

The full text of the decision is available via the EFF.