demolition man api copyright

Murder, Death, Copyright Violation

As an alarming legal predicament builds momentum in the software world, the dangers of a not-quite-dystopian Taco Bell centric future saturated with legal barriers continues to threaten the enterprise landscape, and undermine innovation and interoperability. Litigious quagmires involving software patents and copyrights has become the technology equivalent of the cold war, a mostly silent battle where software titans calculate strategies in mutually assured destruction. Two of those titans, Oracle and Google have been entrenched in a protracted legal squabble involving Application Programming Interfaces (API). One of the primary points of contention is whether API’s are copyrightable, and as a consequence, whether they can be reverse engineered without permission. All of this is happening just as we’re seeing pockets of innovation emerge in largely conventional software markets such as PLM, ERP, ECM, and CRM for which API’s play a central role. Will every innovative enterprise software startup be litigated and fined into oblivion as a result? You’ve been fined $10 million dollars for violating the API Morality Statute.

Oracle’s claims against Google have been recently expanded to all the relevant versions of the Android operating system on the grounds of copyright infringement. Android understandably implements pieces of the Java platform, previously touted as open API’s under Sun, to function and effectively interoperate. At the time of their inclusion earlier in Android’s history, Google and Sun were on relatively friendly terms and in the midst of a de facto partnership, an alliance of necessity to battle against Microsoft. Basically as IP changed ownership from Sun to Oracle, and as Android grew into its own as a highly influential platform across all kinds of devices, tolerance of what Google could or could not do with Java changed dramatically. Enhance your calm, John Spartan. So, of course, both sides naturally remember the past differently. An exhaustive legal analysis in a Potomac Law Group blog posting reveals just how delicate and complex the entire dispute is:

“Google was in negotiations with Sun (predecessor to Oracle) to purchase a license for a derivative version of the Java platform for use on mobile devices, called Java Micro Edition. Google and Sun also discussed co-development, partnership, or other types of ventures under which they could co-produce a mobile operating system. The sticking point was that Google wanted all code to be proprietary rather than compatible with the Java virtual machine or other Java programs. For this reason, Sun did not grant Google a license to the packages. The court was no doubt influenced by the fact that Google had originally determined that they would need a license to use the API packages, and when denied, decompiled and used them verbatim.”

Whether Google actually stepped beyond their rights is not necessarily the issue for everyone else, after all reverse engineering is different from outright copypasta. So put ‘em in the hurt locker, if need be. Unless, of course there’s only one way to do it. What is at issue, however, are the industry wide implications of copyrightable API. Copyright, unlike patents, have certain exemptions from exclusivity, otherwise known as fair use. While fair use in the arts is fairly well understood, there is no concrete definition in the software realm. Effectively, there may be no such thing as software fair use. Even though this is a fundamental software concept to sort out and get right, SCOTUS has decided to pass. Ready to go back in the fridge?

So how does all this factor into engineering technology, particularly PLM, ERP and other enterprise software platforms? The freedom to freely use API’s enables unanticipated connectivity and functionality to emerge from anywhere. New uses for complimentary software functionality can organically rise and bridge data across the enterprise. In Put Your PLM in the Box, I warned that encapsulating something like PLM to a strict definition is pointless, and that soon innovation will wipe away any concept of a singular box. Copyrighted API’s with no effective fair use provision, however, work to artificially preserve the box by severely limiting interoperability. The whole point of API’s is to let others leverage what you have accomplished, to connect your functionality with other functionality into a larger and more effective whole. The economic network effects are orders of magnitude greater than what can be generated through strict licensing alone. But interests like Oracle instead are levering copyright as a weapon against companies that rise to threaten their dominance, specifically those they cannot easily acquire or manipulate.

So the technology cold war continues. It’s less about license fee extortion and more about fencing off threats, but from the small innovator’s perspective there’s little difference. Copyrighted API’s are essentially a ban on innovation. You might as well ban bad language, chocolate, gasoline, uneducational toys and anything spicy. All we’ll have left is Taco Bell.