The Supreme Court today denied Google’s request to review the lower court decision in Google, Inc. v. Oracle America, Inc. 14-410.
The case is a bit complicated, particularly for non-programmers, but it basically asked whether copyright law covers application programming interfaces, or “API”s. The District Court originally found that an API could not be copyrighted. The Federal Circuit disagreed on appeal, holding that “the declaring code and the structure, sequence, and organization of the API packages are entitled to copyright protection.”
This is good news for Oracle (as they won) and for companies that develop software with APIs that they wish to limit access to. This is bad news for the open source/free software movement. It will also probably make standardization of APIs across similar software packages more difficult.
After the Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank decision in 2014, the limits for software patentability are, put bluntly, very unclear. Worse, the direction that the Court will take in future cases is even less clear. Had the Supreme Court granted Google’s request and gone on to hold that copyright law does not cover APIs, and if the Supreme Court continued the nearly annual tradition of limiting the types of things that are patent eligible, it is possible that APIs would have been ineligible for any kind of IP protection.
There is a broader lesson here: Many types of innovation are eligible for more than one kind of legal protection. For example, the Google v. Oracle suit originally involved both copyrights and patents. Had Oracle relied only on patents, they would have lost. The lesson for innovators seeking to protect their innovations against infringement is that they should rely on as many different kinds of IP protection as are available. After Google v. Oracle, the patent/copyright combination seems a wise path for software.