I’ve now read Judge Alsup’s ruling in the Oracle vs. Google lawsuit addressing the copyrightability of the Java APIs as a matter of law. This is a bigger win for the good guys than appears at first glance; Alsup has subtly but definitely driven a stake through the heart of API copyrights. The interesting part is how he did it.
Some early commentary has been claiming that Alsup wrote a narrow opinion specific to the fact pattern of this particular case. And indeed that is how it may appear on first reading, especially since Alsup made no general assertion in the ruling that APIs (other than the specific ones at issue in this trial) cannot be copyrighted.
Actually, the opinion reads exactly as though Alsup wanted to make that more general assertion, but specifically avoided it in order to bulletproof his finding against appeal – overreaching, in a case like this, is one of the more common causes of a remand.
Instead, Alsup did something subtle and clever. Under the guise of writing an exhaustive dissection of Oracle’s claims, he actually wrote a sort of roadmap or how-to manual explaining how to demolish claims of API copyrightability in general. If and when such a claim is again litigated in a U.S. jurisdiction, you can bet a vital organ that this ruling will be cited – and even though it’s not claiming to decide anything but the instant case, it is near certain that the judge will treat it as precedential for that future case in exactly the same way that (for example) Computer Associates vs. Altai has been repeatedly cited.
In fact, what Alsup has done here is extend the line of case law deriving from Altai in a way that applies the abstraction-filtration-comparison test specifically to APIs. I am extremely familiar with this line of case law – I’ve been a consulting expert in a case where it was central – and as I read his opinion I found myself repeatedly nodding and grinning as doctrines like scenes a faire and merger made appearances exactly where I expected them to and Alsup applied them exactly as I expected he would. To oversimplify only a little, where Alsup effectively comes out is “You can’t copyright APIs. Idea and expression merge here.”
But there are no actual surprises here. Which is a good thing; surprises might have meant weaknesses in the application of precedent that a sufficiently clever lawyer could exploit. I don’t detect any such weaknesses. Instead, I see a very tight, clear argument that is going to be at least a serious and probably a fatal obstacle to anyone pushing an API copyrightability theory in the future.
As it turns out, we got the right judge for this case in at least two major ways. My read is that having done some programming himself, Alsup understood the stakes and the issues, and did what he could to kill off API copyrightability for good. And he framed his ruling in exactly the way that would maximize the ruling’s downstream impact while minimizing the chances of reversal.
This was an excellent outcome – probably the best the open-source community could hope for, and better than a more aggressively phrased, less subtle ruling would have been. We have reason to celebrate.
UPDATE: Worth a mention that Boies Schiller, the firm that got its ass handed to it in this lawsuit, were also the losers in the SCO lawsuit. If there is a next time around for this kind of litigation, let’s hope the plaintiff is stupid enough to hire them.