Community Blog

Legal Issues with APIs

Todd Law – NTAF President

The world of APIs has suddenly been thrown back into legal  limbo.

Three years ago, it looked like the legal uncertainty around APIs had been settled.  Two major legal disputes had run their course, one in the European Union and the other in the United States.  Developers, including test automation engineers, could proceed with their work, and not have to worry about legal aspects of APIs.

The European dispute over APIs concluded in May of 2012, in a case between the SAS Institute and World Programming Limited, that “the functionality of a computer program, and the programming language it is written in, cannot be protected by copyright”, effectively meaning that APIs are not copyrightable.  Neither of these organizations are household names, so it’s worth explaining a little about them.  The SAS Institute is a private software company with about 13,000 employees, and is headquartered in North Carolina.  World Programming Limited is a private company headquartered in the UK.  WPL’s main product, World Programming System, can use programs written in the language of SAS (a language used for statistical analysis), without the need for translating them.  In other words, WPL created some APIs which allowed their customers to use their existing scripts or programs on a different platform.  Sound familiar?  But because WPL was only mimicking the functionality, and did not have access to source code, the EU Court of Justice (the highest court in the EU) ruled in WPL’s favor.

The American dispute over APIs also concluded in May of 2012 – but this case involved much bigger names.  In this case, a US jury found that Google, in the development of its Android operating system, did not infringe on Oracle’s Java-related patents.  The trial judge also ruled that the structure of the Java APIs was not copyrightable.  So the world looked safe for APIs.  For a while.  In the US dispute, however, the decision was made at the district (lower) court level, so of course, Oracle appealed to a Federal Circuit court, which partially reversed the district court’s decision, ruling in favor of Oracle on the copy right issue.  This happened just over a year ago, in May of 2014.  Back into a state of limbo.

So fast forward to June 29, 2015.  Google, backed by dozens of law professors, recently asked the US Supreme Court to weigh in on the issue.   The Supreme Court even invited the Obama administration to submit a brief as to whether it should hear the case.  The Obama administration suggested it should not hear the case, and the Supreme court followed the administration’s suggestion.  But that’s not the end of the story – the lawsuit will now likely head back to a lower district court for a ruling.  It could take years for the US courts to decide conclusively on this.

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