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Reza Rahman: Oracle and Google Should Be Working Together

The recent decision by a federal district court jury that Google's use of 37 Java APIs in the development of its Android OS was a "fair use" of that technology and did not infringe on Oracle-owned copyrights came as a relief to the developer community, generally speaking, if a temporary one. The reaction of Josh Juneau, a Chicago-based app developer, blogger and author, was typical:

"I think this is a win for the developer community," Juneau said in an e-mail. "APIs are different from fully functional and completed applications or products. Many of us developers utilize open sourced APIs every day, and it would be a huge burden if we had to worry about licensing, etc. That is one of the reasons we use and develop open source software: so that others can make use of it as they see fit."

Gartner analyst Mark Driver has been a vocal critic of "the absurdity of Oracle's case" for some time. He reiterated his position in an e-mail that "copyrighting APIs is ridiculous and threatens innovation across the entire industry." He doesn't love the fair use argument, but he allows that it effectively addresses the mistake the court made with the earlier decision.

Oracle is going to appeal the latest decision, of course, so this story -- this long, long story -- has a few chapters left. But in the telling of it, says former Oracle Java EE community evangelist Reza Rahman, a larger point is being lost.

"I think both sides in this case are wrong," Rahman told me, "because neither side is serving the interests of developers."

Rahman, as we reported earlier, was the driving force behind the recently formed Java EE Guardians, a group of volunteers committed to supporting enterprise Java. He left Oracle earlier this year and now works as a consultant with CapTech Consulting.

"These guys should be working together and providing a standard API that Java developers can rely on without having to hitch their wagons to either Oracle or Google," Rahman said. "That would be the right thing to do. That's what Sun Microsystems wanted to do when it was the steward of Java. And that's what these two companies would be doing if they truly cared about developers. I see only self interest in all of this."

But Rahman has what I would call mixed feelings about the copyrightability of APIs.

"If I create an API, it should be within my rights to copyright it," he said. "Fair use, which is always judged on a case-by-case basis, acknowledges that sometimes there's a greater purpose than that served by copyright, and that should be accommodated also. In a perfect world there is no IP, and yet, when you create value you should be able to monetize that. This as a very slippery slope we're on right now."

To be clear, U.S. District Judge William Alsup's original ruling that the Java APIs at the center of the lawsuit were not subject to copyright was overturned on appeal, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Google's appeal, which effectively means that APIs are copyrightable. Historically, APIs have not been protected by copyright, but Oracle has argued that the "structure, sequence and organization" of the API packages in Java are sufficiently complex to merit protection.

"It's time to leave the bickering and uncertainty that has been hovering over the Java community behind," Rahman added, "and let's arrive at an API that moves the standard forward."

Amen to that.

Posted by John K. Waters on June 6, 2016