“Unethical and Greedy”: Free Software Foundation on Oracle vs. Google

Last week William Alsup ruled that Google did in fact infringe on Oracle’s Java API copyrights. Google’s counterattack hinges on whether or not APIs themselves are copyrightable. While Oracle and Google’s respective legal teams argue the matter, the Free Software Foundation has stepped in with its own point of view: Oracle’s attempt to defend the ability to copyright APIs would be no less than a stake through the heart of the open source community.

The Free Software Foundation wears its bias on its sleeve – founded by no less than Richard Stallman as the non-profit corporation that manages and maintains the GNU community project and generally advocates for the continuing open source software movement, it naturally has thrown its weight to claim that Google has a right to use Java in the Android mobile operating system.

In a statement, Free Software Foundation Executive Director John Sullivan doesn’t mince words:

Were it grounded in reality, Oracle’s claim that copyright law gives them proprietary control over any software that uses a particular functional API would be terrible for free software and programmers everywhere. It is an unethical and greedy interpretation created with the express purpose of subjugating as many computer users as possible, and is particularly bad in this context because it comes at a time when the sun has barely set on the free software community’s celebration of Java as a language newly suitable for use in the free world. Fortunately, the claim is not yet reality, and we hope Judge Alsup will keep it that way.

“Unethical,” “greedy,” “subjugated” – Sullivan clearly doesn’t care about making an enemy of Oracle, if he hasn’t already. It’s worth mentioning that I couldn’t find anyone defending Oracle’s play to claim APIs as copyrightable, only those who are discussing the potential disaster that could occur of Judge Alsup rules in their favor.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has already expended a lot of effort pushing the idea that a web with copyrighted, closed APIs wouldn’t be much of a web at all, and would only reinforce the threat of a “walled garden,” closed computing ecosystem. It would be almost impossible to get a new product off the ground without lawyer involvement, and all it would take for, say, Amazon Web Services to stifle competition is wall off its API entirely. Innovation, flexibility and interoperability would become a thing of the past.

“With APIs fast becoming the core means for communicating enterprise data across organizational boundaries, this could have serious implications for enterprise architects,” wrote Jaime Ryan, Partner Solutions Architect for API management solution provider Layer7, in a blog entry.

The EFF’s legal experts say that there’s a strong case to be made against API copyrights, given their purely functional nature. Just as you can’t copyright a programming language, APIs may be held up as a medium of creation and not a product. Of course, that’s the judge’s call.

Something I couldn’t help but notice are Oracle’s lack of defense in the court of public opinion in this case. The FSF, the EFF, and seemingly the entire developer community see Oracle as a patent troll at worst and a greedy corporation at best as it goes after Google. So if Oracle wants to maintain even a shred of respectability after this case, it had better hope that the judge rules APIs copyrightable – if it doesn’t end up as Darth Vader, it might well end up as Dark Helmet.