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Rise of the Copyright API Dead?: An Updated Epitaph for Copyright Protection of Network and Functional Features of Computer Software

Peter S. Menell

After a decade of bruising legal battles, the courts and software industry norms largely resolved the costly war over the scope of copyright protection for computer software. By the late 1990s, freedom to develop interoperable devices, systems, and software triumphed over broad copyright protection for network features of computer software. Copyright peace prevailed throughout the software industry for the next 15 years. But in 2010, Oracle reignited the smoldering embers of that war when it brought suit alleging that Google...

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Covid-19 and the Online Courtroom: Benefits and Drawbacks

By Carolina Rabinowicz – Edited by Pablo Lozano

Less than a year ago, the prospect of widespread online trials seemed eons away. However, after nine months of a pandemic-induced global shutdown, it seems that the sci-fi scenario of online courtrooms has become today’s brave new reality: Many countries have moved courtrooms online to avoid fully abridging access to justice during the pandemic. After the first Zoom-only criminal jury trial was held on August 11, 2020 in Texas, some were left disillusioned. The attorneys involved in the case argued...

Rise of the Copyright API Dead?: An Updated Epitaph for Copyright Protection of Network and Functional Features of Computer Software

After a decade of bruising legal battles, the courts and software industry norms largely resolved the costly war over the scope of copyright protection for computer software. By the late 1990s, freedom to develop interoperable devices, systems, and software triumphed over broad copyright protection for network features of computer software. Copyright peace prevailed throughout the software industry for the next 15 years. But in 2010, Oracle reignited the smoldering embers of that war when it brought suit alleging that Google infringed copyright in the Java application program interface packages (APIs).

This article updates and expands upon an earlier “epitaph” for copyright protection of network features of computer software to address the second API copyright wave. As background, Part I reviews the first wave of API copyright legislation and litigation. Part II examines the Oracle v. Google litigation, tracing the development of Java and Android and the subsequent (and still ongoing) battle over the scope of copyright protection for APIs. Part III critically analyzes the Oracle v. Google decisions. It explains that copyright law’s fundamental exclusion of protection for functional features dictates that the labeling conventions and packaging of functions within interface specifications generally fall outside of the scope of copyright protection, even as implementing code garners thin copyright protection. This interpretation of copyright law comports with fundamental principles channeling protection among the modes of intellectual property. It also serves the larger goals of intellectual property law and competition policy.