Oracle v Google is Everything that’s Wrong with Copyright

This week, the Oracle v Google trial came to a close, with a jury finding that Google’s use of Oracle’s Java API names was fair use.  This is, of course, not the end, as Oracle has vowed to appeal the decision.

The outcome is monumental, but only because the courts have previously erred significantly and ruled that APIs are copyrightable at all.  The Supreme Court had refused certiori to examine that ruling of an Appellate court, which in turn was a reversal of a District court decision (EFF has all the details).  Interestingly, this most recent case was heard under the original judge, so it’s quite possible the Appellate Court will reverse again.  I think it’s crazy to suggest that API names are even copyrightable, but given that they’ve been ruled as such, I can’t see how use of APIs isn’t fair use.

Google didn’t copy Oracle’s code; they rewrote it themselves, but used the same name for the code functions, and then packaged it into a much better product than anything Oracle had created.  And it’s not like this negatively impacted Java’s market viability (contrary to what Oracle claims); Android likely saved Java from becoming a defunct language used only in big enterprise environments.  Younger aspiring developers want to program in languages for apps and new web technologies like Ruby, Node, Swift, and even Python. But the only new reason to know Java is because Android exists; if Android had picked Python, that’s what everyone would be learning to make Android apps. It’s ridiculous.

But more fundamentally, the use of API names can’t be restricted! That defeats the whole purpose of having them! Sure, Twitter has the right to restrict the calling of functions on their servers through their APIs, but the actual name of the REST calls isn’t theirs forever now. Steve and Leo on Security Now said it very well about APIs:

It’s driving a car. If we didn’t have a single uniform car/driver interface, meaning brake and accelerator, and this is how the steering wheel works, it would be a disaster. And as I thought about this more, I realized that this notion of standards is what this comes down to. And standards are such a part of our life that it’s even – it’s almost hard to appreciate the degree to which we depend upon them. I mean, think about even threads, you know, nuts and bolts with standard threading. If everyone just made up their own, so that screws were not interchangeable, it would just be a catastrophe.

I would go even further; a steering wheel is a patentable invention that other car companies would have to pay to use…but calling it a “steering wheel” isn’t something you can restrict. Doing so would be a blatant misuse of copyright and horrific reduction in free speech. Steven Gibson continued:

And, I mean, so I guess my real complaint is that Oracle has historically benefited from the spread and the use of Java. And so because they allowed that to happen, it’s done as well as it has. And suddenly now Google has capitalized on it, and they’re wanting to take their marbles back and to say – or basically, essentially, this is a $9.3 billion lawsuit. So they’re saying we want some of the revenue which Google is obtaining as a consequence of doing a far better job in commercializing and leveraging Java for profit than we ever could. Because all we’re doing is telling everyone to get Java out of their computers…

…The BIOS is another perfect example. The fact that IBM gave us an interface called the Basic I/O System allowed all kinds of programs to be written without regard for whether it was, for example, a color graphic display or a monochrome graphic display. They were completely different. They occupied different hardware regions. Yet the BIOS hid those differences so that a program didn’t have to worry about what type of hardware you had. And that was an API, a standard. But just in general this kind of standardization, you can sort of imagine sort of a Mad Max post-cataclysm world where you no longer have standards, and everyone’s thing is just made from scratch, and they’re not – nothing’s interoperable. And it would just be a bizarre place.

And I think one of the major things that the Industrial Revolution did was it taught us the power of interoperability. And here Oracle is trying to say, yeah, we’re going to get a toll for you using something that we purchased and never figured out how to use. 

I’ve said it in the past, and I’ll keep saying it: the purpose of all intellectual property law is not to help the owners of intellectual property, but rather to promote creativity and new works.  Ruling that API names are copyrightable does literally nothing to promote interoperability or improve technology; it only makes it harder to improve the world. Getting this fair use ruling is better than nothing, but it should never have come to this.

Photo credit: Android Lineup by Rob Bulmahn, licensed under CC-BY-2.0.

Intellectual Property and Cultural Appropriation

The point of intellectual property is to promote the creation of new content, but IP has become so cumbersome it actually thwarts creativity rather than promote it.  However, restrictions do not just come in the form of laws, but also critiques of what society finds socially acceptable.  Concerns about avant-garde art pushing boundaries would normally be considered the domain of traditional conservatives.  Nonetheless, recent developments have made unlikely critics on the Left, concerned about new art “appropriating” the culture of minorities.


In a previous post, I made a strong argument that copyright has become too restrictive.  Other forms of intellectual property, like patents, aren’t much better. Duke Law Professor James Boyle has written extensively on this issue: What Intellectual Property Should Learn From Software, A Manifesto on WIPO and the Future of Intellectual Property, and a free book, The Public Domain.  Software patents are especially annoying, just ask Richard Stallman.

I had previously stated that IP is interesting because it has a utilitarian basis, not a moral one. Professor Boyle has more degrees than me and says it better:

Yet intellectual property rights are not ends in themselves. Their goal is to give us a decentralized system of innovation in science and culture: no government agency should pick which books are written or have the sole say over which technologies are developed. Instead, the creation of limited legal monopolies called intellectual property rights gives us a way of protecting and rewarding innovators in art and technology, encouraging firms to produce quality products, and allowing consumers to rely on the identity of the products they purchased.

While some academics, technology groups, and libertarian groups (like the Cato Institute) have talked about the problems with IP, mainstream politics has yet to really embrace the discussion, with one exception: the Left is not a fan of pharmaceutical patents.  For example, ThinkProgress lauds the Vatican for speaking out against drug patents, and the Huffington Post bemoans the extension of drug patents in the TPP.  Naturally, these articles do not have a great grasp of markets or how they work to benefit individuals, but they do bring forward some interesting points; ThinkProgress holds drug patent laws as more of a moral issue keeping lifesaving drugs away from the poor, while the Huffington Post piece (written by the founder of the CEPR) supplies alternative, more efficient ways to run the drug patent system. If you want a counterpoint, I’d recommend The Economist’s commentary on this topic.

I think this discussion is excellent, and more Republicans should start talking about the most obvious IP reforms, like reducing the amount of patents issued (especially in software), and making it easier for the FDA to approve more drugs at lower cost to companies. Unfortunately much of the discussion about cultural appropriation is decidedly less excellent. Continue reading Intellectual Property and Cultural Appropriation

Copyright versus Creativity

Unlike the cave painting above (which is no longer under copyright), you are reading an article whose copyright will expire in over a century.  Given the life expectancy of an American born less than 30 years ago, I’m likely to just miss the next Cubs World Series win in 2070.  But 70 years after I’m dead, my copyrights will expire, meaning you will be free to incorporate this article into a movie or perhaps a 3D hologram, sometime around 2140.  Of course, that assumes copyright law won’t change in the intervening 130 years.  History seems to indicate otherwise, as 130 years ago, my copyright would have only lasted 56 years, which suggests this article’s copyright might not expire until 2170, or maybe even 2200!

Continue reading Copyright versus Creativity