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Let's say the author of a operating system or graphics driver wants to implement Apple's Metal graphics API (application procedure interface) instead of the open Vulkan graphics API from the Khronos group. Will a license be required in this case?

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In Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc., 593 U.S. ___ (2021), the US Supreme Court addressed the reproduction of a subset of the Java API.

The majority assumed for the sake of argument that the Java API was protected by copyright, but went on to hold that the reproduction was a fair use.

We shall assume, but purely for argument’s sake, that the entire Sun Java API falls within the definition of that which can be copyrighted. We shall ask instead whether Google’s use of part of that API was a “fair use.” Unlike the Federal Circuit, we conclude that it was.

So, it is an open question whether an API is protected by copyright, but the precedent from the Federal Circuit will be persuasive authority. The Federal Circuit held that the API is protected by copyright and the Supreme Court did not upset that conclusion.

Second, the factors that led the court to conclude the reproduction of part of the Java API was fair use could turn out another way in another fact scenario. Some of the reasoning seems to generalize, but some seems specific to the Java development ecosystem. Briefly, the court recognized:

  • API authorship is a creative process, but is "functional in nature"
  • The reproduction was intended to assist interoperability; it was commercial; there was no evidence of bad faith
  • The amount of code taken was a small amount of the entire Java work, an amount consistent with its goals
  • The market harms to Oracle were dubious

My prediction is that there will continue to be significant case-by-case uncertainty as to the applicability of the fair-use defence in this context.

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  • Is it likely that the basis for the ruling will be sufficient to warrant summary dismissal of similar lawsuits brought by e.g. GPL'd API rights-holders, or are we still in the realm of needing case-by-case judgments?
    – MooseBoys
    Nov 10, 2022 at 23:32

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