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The Copyrightability Of APIs In The Land Of OpenStack

Last week, the Federal Circuit overturned the District Court judgment in Oracle v. Google, finding that the Java API is copyrightable. This move overturns the expectations of businesses and developers and is likely to negatively impact how they leverage APIs going forward. We have been thinking a lot about the ruling since it came down, putting together our thoughts.

To start with, we are very disappointed with the ruling. The Federal Circuit very clearly got it wrong. While Rackspace has no stake in the fight over Android, we do have a stake in the legal status of APIs. As developers, we consume APIs of all kinds every day. As a company, almost all of our products are exposed to the world only as APIs. As we wrote in our brief to the court last year, we think that APIs are inherently functional – as the name suggests, they are just “interfaces” between two different pieces of software. Copyrighting APIs makes no more sense than copyrighting the little bumps on the top of Lego bricks.

We are not alone in thinking this decision is bad news. Wired says “Oracle’s copyright victory over Google is bad news for everyone.” The Disruptive Competition project called it “poorly reasoned.” Vox called it a “disaster for the software industry.”

So where does that leave us?

First, developers and businesses are free to use our APIs to build new services and new applications. Long before the current fight, we made our client and server APIs open source. Use them, clone them, build on them – we welcome everyone to participate with us in building the open cloud. As Donnie Berkholz of Redmonk puts it, providing users and developers with legal guarantees provides them the freedom to build – because they have the freedom to reimplement if needed.

Second, this decision validates our longstanding position that OpenStack needs its own APIs. For some time there have been elements in the OpenStack community that have tried to build OpenStack interfaces (and businesses) on top of AWS APIs. We have always thought that was a bad idea from an engineering perspective: As a community, we don’t want to cede control over what we do in OpenStack to other cloud vendors. As developers, we don’t want to burden ourselves with having to worry about subtle semantic differences and bug-for-bug compatibility with a platform we don’t control.

But last week’s decision gives us a new reason. As GigaOm has already pointed out, using Amazon APIs is now a legal risk, one which we don’t have to take.

We are here this week at the OpenStack Summit – a community 4,500 people strong. As Troy Toman expressed in his keynote yesterday, there are lots of pressures to take OpenStack and go in different directions. But our mission is to set aside our individual differences and see beyond our short-term goals to the bigger brighter future that we can co-create today.

About the Author

This is a post written and contributed by Van Lindberg.

Van Lindberg is Vice President of Intellectual Property at Rackspace. He is trained as a computer engineer and lawyer, but what he does best is “translate” to help businesses, techies and attorneys understand each other.

Van likes working with both computer code and legal code. For the past several years, he has been using natural language processing and graph theory to help him digest and map the U.S. Patent Database.

Before becoming a lawyer, Van was a research and development engineer at NTT/Verio, where he built automation tools and distributed systems using mostly Python. He was also an IT administrator for the Harold B. Lee College of Education at his alma mater, Brigham Young University. Van has been involved with open source since 1994, when a friend introduced him to Linux.

In April 2012, the American Bar Association Journal named Van one of “America’s Top 12 Techiest Attorneys.” He is currently chairman of the board of the Python Software Foundation, as well as the author of “Intellectual Property and Open Source.”


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