SDKs and APIs: Do they have copyright protection?


A simmering IP infringement case between Oracle and Google raises some fascinating copyright issues for software: what scope of protection is given to functional elements in an SDK (software development kit) or an API (application programming interface)? The case of ORACLE AMERICA, INC. v. GOOGLE INC. (Case No. 3:10-cv-03561-WHA) is in pre-trial contortions, with the trial currently slated for 2012. None of this has been decided in court, it merely focusses attention on a very narrow issue of copyright protection for certain elements of software code (there is a patent infringement claim on the table as well).  Oracle alleges that Google infringed copyright in Java code when it built the Android software platform. Specifically, Oracle complains that Google copied design specifications of some 37 APIs for Java libraries, as well as Java source code, object code and comments in 12 software files. In its defence, Google claims that the APIs are purely functional elements and are not eligible for copyright protection. Will this threaten Android ? Likely not. Google has articulated a compelling argument that there is no copyright in the Java APIs (see here (PDF)), but if the court disagrees and finds either copyright or patent infringement, it will merely trigger a damages calculations, and millions of dollars in royalty payments, not a death-knell for Android.

In Canada, the law is clear (see Delrina Corporation v. Triolet Systems Inc., a 2002 Ontario Court of Appeal decision) computer programming that is dictated by the operating system or reflects common programming practices is not original expression and will not receive copyright protection.  In the meantime, we will watch the Oracle vs. Google case to see if it goes to trial before the parties can reach settlement.

Further Reading including Google and Oracle Trial Briefs.

Calgary – 07:00 MST

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