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Are APIs Covered by Copyright or Copyleft or Neither?

Are APIs the New Black?

Although I favor Google in this litigation, I (as a layman) consider Oracle assertion that intellectual property copyright protection applies to APIs worth considering in the context of Cloud applications, SaaS, and the mobile application build-out that is reshaping the software and (as we seen with HP) hardware industry.

Side Show In Oracle, Google Patent Fight: Are API's Covered By Copyright? | Techdirt

My curiosity regarding the evolution of Cloud Computing and the rapidly adoption of Service Oriented Architecture has caused me to wonder about the APIs firms develop as interfaces to their web services. If applications in the cloud will increasingly be composed of multiple web services, then the integration effort to program to such web services represents a significant investment of time and money in designing and building such an API so as to enable customers to conveniently access their services offered. Moreover, as a service becomes more widely used, maintaining, extending, and supporting an API represents a real cost of doing business and adds to the value of the business. For example, a substantial extension or redesign of an API requires a web services provider / developer to "map" legacy API calls to new API calls.

More important is the "network effect" of a web service. Informal standards emerge as more third-party developers choose to use a specific web service. And by "use" a large portion of what this means is developers will often choose whether or not to subscribe to or pay for one out of a set of competing web services based largely upon how convenient, transparent, and well-documented an web services vendor API is. And so web services providers that wish to grow their business invest in both the development community that grows around use of their API, and the web services developer invests to create a satisfied community of developers. As a result of this network effect, some web services may become standard simply because the community is comfortable and familiar with the API and maintains and build additional components using these APIs.

I argue that while each method call may not be protected by copyright law, that a set of methods, such as those created, planned, and assembled for an API constitutes "art" and that creating a useful and "good" API is difficult and is an art form. An API is far from being a simple functional aspect of an application that is either a separate component or obvious and inevitable.

APIs are "sticky" and as noted above, a good API can foster a community of developers and can rapidly become the basis for a successful web service. An API constitutes the dna of a web service and defines how it delivers its service as well as how elegantly it can be used by its subscribers. If an API is not protected by intellectual property law, specifically copyright law, what is to protect a web service provider's substantial investment in designing, developing, supporting, and documentation of the API? Consider the possibility that a competitor could simply copy a successful web services API and in essence "steal" the substantial investment made by the original artist / web services developer?

In my opinion this type of intellectual property protection is truly necessary to protect small web services developers from being swept aside by large players. This kind of protection goes well beyond patent protection, and will become one of the most important legal issues in the software industry as software development evolves towards a network based world of composite applications that interact entirely based on their APIs.

More Stories By Brian McCallion

Brian McCallion, founder of New York City-based consultancy Bronze Drum focuses on the unique challenges of Public Cloud adoption in the Fortune 500. Forged along the fault line of Corporate IT and line of business meet, Brian successfully delivers successful enterprise public cloud solutions that matter to the business. In 2011, while the Cloud was just a gleam in the eye of most Fortune 500 firms Brian designed and proved the often referenced hybrid cloud architecture that enabled McGraw-Hill Education to scale the web and application layer of its $160M revenue, 2M user higher education platform in Amazon Web Services. Brian recently designed and delivered the JD Power and Associates strategic customer facing Next Generation Content Platform, an Alfresco Content Management solution supported by a substantial data warehouse and data mart running in AWS and a batch job that processes over 500M records daily in RDS Oracle.”

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