Whenever we power up a phone, download an app or browse the web, we expect all our devices, software and platforms to work together seamlessly. That expectation is at the heart of the digital experiences we enjoy every day. Whether we’re playing a favorite song in a music streaming app and sound comes out of our headphones, or we’re searching for a hotel on a travel-booking site and instantly see offerings and prices from multiple brands, all we have to do is click and technology just … works. But arguments will soon be raised in a pending U.S. Supreme Court case that could force companies — and ultimately consumers — to pay a steep price if they want to continue to enjoy the benefits of this technological harmony in the future.
At the center of the case, Google v. Oracle, is a little-known but fundamental component of software development called an application programming interface or “API.” APIs play a central role in ensuring that hardware, programs, and systems of the past, present, and future can all work together. The court’s decision about the APIs at issue, in this case, will determine whether the largely unfettered use of APIs by software developers will continue to foster innovation, or if APIs will become walled-off assets protected by the threat of frivolous copyright lawsuits, effectively preventing an untold number of small developers from bringing useful, affordable products and services to the consumer marketplace.
APIs exist in almost every piece of technology we use and allow devices, different types of software, databases and online platforms to connect and communicate with one another. Whenever we add an event to our phone’s calendar from the web, pay for items in our online shopping carts or click a link to share a story on social media, these small bits of computer code are working in the background to transform our clicks into actions. APIs are also responsible for allowing different pieces of hardware in the same device, like your phone’s processor and its speaker, to “talk” to each other.
You can think of APIs as the technological equivalent of the front desk staff at a hotel. They act as the go-between for websites, apps, and hardware, in much the same way the front desk ensures that when a hotel guest dials “0” to seek assistance, their requests and any additional instructions are conveyed to housekeeping, the bell desk or the concierge team so the guest will receive their fresh towels, help with their luggage, or a dinner reservation, in a timely manner. Similarly, APIs receive and deliver instructions and then ensure that specific actions are completed. They make things like third-party travel booking and sharing songs from a streaming platform via text possible.
At the heart of this case is Oracle’s claim that APIs are copyrightable. If an API is copyrightable, that would mean its owner (in this case Oracle) could exert an extraordinary amount of control over its use, including requiring programmers to choose between negotiating costly licenses or risking lawsuits anytime they want to incorporate an API’s basic interoperability functions into their software.
In addition to increasing the cost of all types of products and services, this outcome would be a significant departure from longstanding software development practices, where APIs have been considered essential building blocks that can be freely used to ensure that devices and applications function properly by facilitating interoperability. The fundamentally functional nature of APIs is the reason courts have excluded them from copyright protection, and why copyrighting APIs would be as nonsensical as a hotel chain attempting to claim ownership of the idea and function of its front desk staff.
The Supreme Court has the opportunity to safeguard access to a fundamentally functional software development tool that permits the technology we rely on each day to simply work. We hope the court’s decision about the APIs, in this case, will honor the true intent of copyright law, fostering innovation for the benefit of all Americans.
Jon Berroya is senior vice president and general counsel of Internet Association, which represents America’s leading internet companies.
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