Net API Notes for 2021/04/14 - Issue 153 - Google v Oracle Fin

Last week concluded a decade-long saga. What's crazy is that it probably didn't even register on most API practitioners' radar, despite what was at stake. So, in this edition of Net API Notes, I'm going to talk about it for, hopefully, the last time.

That's right. We're going to take a moment to celebrate the outcome of Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc. and why it matters.



The Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc. case began even before this newsletter. At issue was whether Oracle could claim a copyright on Java APIs and, if so, whether Google infringed on this copyright when it implemented similar interfaces for its Android mobile operating system.

The best description of what was at stake comes from coverage of the result on ArsTechnica:

"If APIs became subject to copyright protection, it would become much easier for an incumbent software provider to lock its customers into a proprietary standard. That would create more compatibility headaches for consumers, and it would make it harder for software startups to break in to established software markets. Opponents of API copyrights also warned that a ruling for Oracle could unleash a flood of API copyright lawsuits similar to the patent troll lawsuits of the last 20 years."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) declared "-excluding APIs from copyright protection was essential to the development of modern computers and the internet".


As I've documented over the years, the case has had many twists and turns:

The case has been going on for so long that the human interest coverage minted its own minor celebrities. (Props and respect to Judge William Alsup and Sarah Jeong.) These are only highlights (lowlights?). The case Wikipedia page is fantastically exhaustive (and I mean that in all the various definitions of the word).


Google's legal strategy has shifted in notable ways during that time. Google began by arguing that it didn't infringe on copyright. That argument lost not once but twice at the appellate level.

Rather than continuing that losing strategy, Google's legal team shifted from debating infringement. Instead, their two-pronged new approach argued that APIs couldn't be copyrighted AND, even if they were copyrighted, what Google did was fair use.

Of note, the Supreme Court didn't address the first question. They felt, due to the rapidly changing landscape and innovation ramifications at stake, it was best to refrain from broad precedent. However, by a 6-2 vote (with one abstaining), the Supreme Court ruled that even if APIs were copyrightable, Google's specific copying of Oracle's Java API was protected by fair use. The majority opinion concluded that the "purpose and character" of Google's copying was transformative.


Answering whether APIs are copyrightable was punted to another day, which is unfortunate. The idea that interface be protected with the same legal fervor as creative works is like sand in the gears of innovation. Not armageddon, per se, but friction to implementation of new products and services nonetheless. Language in the copyright statute excludes copyright protection for procedures, processes, and methods of operation, things like APIs, for this very reason.

That said, the Court's decision does create a future where API users can continue to use their acquired knowledge and experience across subsequent platforms. It avoids a rash of tit-for-tat lawsuits where befuddled judges attempt to determine seven-to-ten-figure settlements because some field names are similar. And it refocuses effort at the locus of idea execution and delivery within a marketplace, not around establishing barriers to entry.

Those are good things.



There are a lot of fun, interesting-sounded events coming up and documented on If you know of something upcoming - virtual or not - let me know.

Because of the Supreme Court ruling, we can look forward to a long and healthy future of API development (and the subsequent writing about it). Thank you to my Patreons who continue to support that work!

Till next time,

Matthew @libel_vox and

Subscribe to Net API Notes

Don’t miss out on the latest issues. Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.