Google v. Oracle Courts Cloud Controversy

Will legal uncertainty surrounding APIs and fair use bring the cloud computing market crashing to the ground?

Nowadays when it comes to IP squabbles, the IT industry can't help but be a little jaded -- even when tech titans take to the courtroom. However, the copyright case between Oracle and Google has cloud computing innovators fearing the fallout.

At issue are Oracle's copyrights surrounding Java application programming interfaces (APIs), 37 of which the company accuses Google of misappropriating for the Android operating system. On Monday, a jury in California concluded that Google violated Oracle's copyrights in a partial verdict that was anything but cut-and-dried.

The split-decision left one crucial question unanswered. Did Google's use of the Java APIs constitute fair use?

Free-Wheeling Cloud APIs

Barring uses that compromise the integrity of their platforms or run afoul of law enforcement, IT companies generally like to take a hands-off approach to their APIs in order to grow their platforms, spark market adoption, and build healthy, revenue-generating ecosystems around their technologies. In the cloud provider market, Amazon stands as a prime example.

Amazon's APIs are widely used by startups and established cloud services alike. They have helped foster innovation that, in part, is currently driving a massive amount of IT investments in cloud infrastructures and supporting software. That's why Amazon raised eyebrows in March when it officially sanctioned Eucalyptus's use of its AWS APIs for private and hybrid cloud deployments.

As viewed by industry watchers, the move is indicative of Amazon's strategy for bringing more enterprise customers into the AWS fold by eliminating legal and technical uncertainty. It's also an attempt to fend off competing -- and relatively unrestricted -- cloud technologies like the open source OpenStack platform.

Lingering in the air is the possibility that one day Amazon won't like how another firm is using its APIs and take legal action. It's a scenario that can have devastating effects on the IT industry, experts warn.

Will Clouds Go Dark?

In the Electronic Frontier Foundation's (EFF) reaction to the Oracle v. Google case, staff attorney Julie Samuels states that in the EFF's view, Google made fair use of the Java APIs. She also spells out the fundamental issue that exists at the intersection of copyrights and APIs.

She writes, "Here's the problem: Treating APIs as copyrightable would have a profound negative impact on interoperability, and, therefore, innovation. APIs are ubiquitous and fundamental to all kinds of program development. It is safe to say that all software developers use APIs to make their software work with other software."

The effects of enforcing copyrights on APIs can be devastating to the burgeoning cloud market, according to George Reese, Chief Technology Officer for enStratus Networks, a cloud management specialist. He told Wired Enterprise that copy-protected APIs "would put any company that has implemented the Amazon APIs at risk unless they have some kind of agreement with Amazon on those APIs."

At the very least, following Oracle's lead on APIs could erect costly barriers to entry for cloud companies.

In his examination of the verdict for Wired Enterprise, Robert McMillan wrote that the "case could give Amazon legal grounds to seek licensing deals from OpenStack users such as Hewlett-Packard and Rackspace." OpenStack mimics Amazon's APIs, as does Citrix's CloudStack and middleware from Jclouds and Fog.

Despite this case, Samuels says that the courts already have clear guidelines when it comes to copyrights and APIs.

"Setting aside the practical consequences, there’s a perfectly good legal reason not to treat APIs as copyrightable material: they are purely functional. The law is already clear that copyright cannot cover programming languages, which are merely mediums for creation (instead, copyright may potentially cover what one creatively writes in that language)."

Pedro Hernandez is a contributing editor, the news service of theIT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals. Follow him on Twitter@ecoINSITE.

Tags: Oracle, cloud computing, Google, API, lawsuit

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