In the wake of a Supreme Court decision not to hear an appeal of a ruling on whether application programming interfaces (APIs) are subject to copyright, concerns about how vibrant the API economy might actually be are now rife throughout the IT industry.
While it remains to be determined if the use of Java APIs within the Google Android operating system constitutes fair use as defined by copyright law, the case is sure to push organizations toward clearly defined APIs that are well within the bounds of the public domain.
APIs as the main vehicle for integration
For IT services providers, the outcome of this case could have a profound effect. APIs are coins of the realm in a digital economy. As mechanisms that express a software component in terms of its operations, inputs, outputs, and underlying types, APIs have emerged as the dominant vehicle that IT service firms invoke to integrate everything from hardware systems to entire cloud services.
But the vast majority of these APIs are owned by one entity or another. They are not considered actual code but rather a representation of a work that according to the courts can be copyrighted. In much the same way, individual letters or words can’t be subject to copyright, but a book or article consisting of letters and words can be.
An API expresses a way to integrate with something else at a high level of abstraction that makes whatever service is being exposed easier for a developer to consume. Because that abstraction is not a physical thing like code, the API itself can't be patented. But as an idea, the courts have ruled APIs are subject to copyrights to which royalties can be attached.
What's considered "fair use" of APIs
In the case of the dispute between Google and Oracle, the Supreme Court has essentially instructed the lower court to now consider if there is such a thing as “fair use” of an API, similar to the way publishers are allowed to use snippets of text from a work without copying the entire work. The problem with that idea is that asking individual developers to determine what represents fair use of an API is not going to be a practical approach to integration.
As a result, IT services firms should expect to see a significant shift toward using APIs that are clearly in the public domain. At present, there are more than 13,000 open APIs published in a directory maintained by Programmableweb, a unit of Mulesoft. There are, however, millions of other APIs that are subject to potential royalty fees unless the owner of those APIs makes a specific commitment to opening them. For instance, Hewlett-Packard recently announced that it will make available open APIs spanning everything from the hardware it manufacturers to the cloud services it builds.
Of course, no one can know for sure how narrowly or broadly any set of justices might one day rule in the dispute between Oracle and Google. But relying more on open APIs will mean that IT services firms can generally feel safer today instead of potentially feeling a whole lot sorrier tomorrow.