UK: Oracle V Google Update: Is Refusing Copyright Protection To Application Programming Interfaces (Apis) The Only Way To Achieve Interoperability?

On 31 May 2012, U.S. District Judge William Alsup delivered a detailed judgement upholding the principle that APIs are not protected by copyright in the Oracle v Google case. Oracle filed an appeal to the ruling in October 2012 and the approaching appeal date has fuelled debate in the software and intellectual property sectors, with a number of interested parties submitting amicus briefs to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit detailing their position and stressing the impact of the eventual appeal decision.


  • The structure, sequence, and organisation of the 37 Java APIs at the centre of the Oracle v Google case were found not to be protected by copyright by the District Court.
  • Copyright law in the US, UK and EU does not protect the functional aspects of software on the basis that computer languages are essentially mediums of communication.
  • Interoperability is intrinsic to the further development and end user enjoyment of modern technology.

The Oracle v Google case

For the past forty years, a common and accepted principle in the software industry has been that the code used to define interfaces and APIs is functional and thus not protected by copyright. In contrast, the code needed to provide the software's capabilities is an expression of ideas and may attract copyright protection. Oracle filed a claim against Google for copyright infringement related to Google's use of 37 Java APIs in the Android mobile operating system and the case went to trial in May 2012.

Oracle argued that Google knowingly used the Java APIs without a licence from its subsidiary, Sun Microsystems. Conversely, Google argued that the use of Java APIs were necessary in order to use Java programming language, which is open source and free to use. It is worth noting that Google's use of the Java APIs prevented interoperability with other Java software. The jury gave a partial verdict in the case and found that Google had infringed the structure, sequence and organisation of the Java programming language. However, Judge Alsup found that the APIs in question were not protected by copyright, which resulted in the dismissal of the copyright infringement claim. He found that copyright protection could not extend to these particular Java APIs because they were a functional part of the Java platform and anyone is free to write code that implements those functions provided the implementation is original. Judge Alsup went on to say that "under the rules of Java, the names of Java interfaces must be identical to declare a method specifying the name functionality - even when the implementation is different. When there is only one way to express an idea or function, then everyone is free to do so and no one can monopolise that expression". He made it clear that the finding that these APIs did not enjoy copyright protection was based on the specific details of this case and was not intended to create a broad legal precedent. However, his reasoning about the functional nature of APIs could clearly affect subsequent cases, hence the software industry's interest in the subsequent appeal.

The appeal

Oracle's appeal has not yet been heard, but amicus briefs have been filed in support of both parties. These briefs form the basis of the debate within the software and intellectual property communities about whether or not copyright protection should be extended to include APIs.

The debate

Software developers depend on the free exchange and use of API codes. These codes are analogous to building blocks and provide a standard interface so that different software can operate and be used together. The importance of API code is central to understanding the potential impact that Oracle's appeal, if successful, may have on software innovation and development. The use of APIs is an inherent aspect of communication between devices and servers. The crux of the debate is whether copyright protection is the best way to ensure future innovation and collaboration in the industry, and how this protection should be balanced with the concept of interoperability.

The latest amicus filing is by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that represent 32 notable computer scientists, including the author of MS-DOS Tim Patterson, whose amicus brief is in support of Google. The central message is that affording copyright protection to APIs would operate as a hindrance to software development. All software developers use APIs to achieve interoperability, so that their software can work with other software. If the appeal is successful, developers will be able to control who can make interoperable software and may use this as a means to block competition. The end result of this could be lower-quality and less innovative software. The freedom to use and extend existing APIs has been essential to modern computing, and in particular, the development of UNIX, internet network protocols, content sharing on social media platforms and cloud computing. The central view held by those supporting Google is that extending copyright protection to APIs will act as a barrier to entry and competition in the software development sector.

Oracle too is not short of industry support. The signatories of amicus briefs in support of Oracle include those involved in software research and development, Microsoft, Oracle's competitors, and Ralph Oman the former head of the U.S. Copyright Office. Microsoft's amicus brief highlighted aspects of the District Court judgement which it believe misconstrued how copyright protection may be afforded to software and failed to recognise the balance that copyright law attempts to achieve between offering protection and enabling freedom to innovate. In particular, it states that software code, which contains more than a slight amount of creativity, satisfies the "modicum of creativity" that the U.S. Supreme Court set as the standard for copyright protection. A similar argument was put forth by Oracle in their appeal. The Microsoft brief also raised the point that copyright protection is not likely to stifle software innovation because the application of the U.S. fair use doctrine will allow for competing products to enter the market. Support for this view centres on achieving balance between allowing developers to protect their intellectual property and ensuring that other legal principles encourage innovation.

Further thoughts

Should Oracle be successful in its appeal, the attribution of copyright protection to APIs is likely to have a significant effect on the industry. While those who have filed amicus briefs in support of Google believe that this could have an overwhelmingly negative impact by reducing competition and hindering innovation, the opposing amicus briefs in support of Oracle suggest that the impact will not be that dire. One undeniable impact of a successful appeal is that businesses and developers are likely to face legal uncertainty over the effect of their use of APIs in software.

In the EU, the importance of interoperability has been recognised. In 2004, the European Commission demanded that Microsoft make interoperability information available to its competitors. The General Court of the European Union upheld this decision. However in SAS Institute Inc. v World Programming Limited [2013] EWHC 69 (Ch) the CJEU found that copyright in a computer program does not protect its programming language nor its interfaces and functionality from being copied because these aspects do not constitute a form of expression. Applying the ruling of Mr Justice Arnold in SAS, it seems unlikely that the EU or UK courts would have decided the Oracle v Google case differently to Judge Alsup. The international software industry will be awaiting the decision in the U.S. appeal because of the potential for it to influence the way that copyright protection is deemed to apply to software and APIs moving forward.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

In association with
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.