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Will the Oracle-Google lawsuit kill the API?

As Google and Oracle duke it out in court over claims that the search giant violated copyrights and patents now owned by Oracle in developing Android, it appears that the battle may have wide-ranging ramifications.

Yesterday, a jury decided that Google violated Oracle copyrights related to the organization and structure of Oracle’s Java APIs, but was unable to decide whether Google had a valid fair use claim.

According to Oracle, Google effectively copied 37 Java APIs into its Android operating system, and this represented copyright infringement. The jury, which agreed, was instructed by the judge in the case, William Alsup, to deliberate with the understanding that the structure, organization and sequence of the APIs was copyrightable in the first place.

He may yet decide as a matter of law that this is not the case, but if he doesn’t, the future of the API may be a lot more bleak.

As Wired’s Robert McMillan details, disputes similar in nature to those being litigated in Oracle v. Google could abound due to the fact that APIs are often imitated, if not duplicated. He points to the cloud, where high-profile projects like OpenStack seek to “mimics” Amazon’s AWS APIs. If APIs can be copyrighted, OpenStack and similar initiatives could find themselves in dangerous territory legally.

Particularly disconcerting is the fact that a European court ruled that APIs are not subject to copyright. If courts in the United States, however, take a different approach (for reasons sensible or not), it will likely create a complicated, confusing environment for the countless companies that have created and/or use APIs that are crucial in everything from operating systems to popular internet services.

What’s more, as McMillan points out, is that copyright lasts a long time — 95 years — as opposed to 20 years for patents. So if you think that the patent wars are bad, the copyright wars over APIs could be even worse.

The question now is whether a single court in the United States will open up Pandora’s Box, and if it does, how many companies are, as Oracle apparently is, willing to embrace what’s inside.

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