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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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Review of Cross-Border Tech Transactions Expands as Committee Struggles to Define Crucial Term

By Christopher Murray - Edited by Pablo Lozano

In August 2020, President Trump ordered social media company ByteDance to divest from TikTok. The President’s action left many wondering, “Can he do that?” The order kicked off a flurry of legal battles, ultimately putting TikTok’s future in the US in an odd sort of holding pattern. The incident perhaps marked a low point in what was already rapidly shrinking Chinese investment in the US amidst the federal government’s significant ramp-up of “non-notified transaction” investigations. These actions have continued to...

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.