- No, I don’t believe that every.toString() interface should be protected by copyright. I am being very specific when I use the phrase “platform APIs” and by that I mean the entire set of APIs that constitute a platform. It is the platform and its corresponding APIs that I believe deserve copyright protection.
- In the case of platform APIs, I believe that the definition of infringement should be narrowly construed to apply only to those instances where a party’s reverse engineering of a platform is motivated by a desire to avoid negotiating with or obtaining a license from the creator / owner of the platform. In the case of Oracle vs. Google, I am persuaded that this was the case.
But what about the traditional distinctions between copyright, which is thought to protect creative expression, and patents, which is thought to protect unique functions or processes? A traditional view would suggest that APIs do not represent creative expression in the same sense as music or literature, and that patent law is more applicable to the functions and process represented by platform APIs. My response is this, that the traditional distinctions between copyright and patent protection are best suited to a world dominated by one-to-many relationships or one-to-many economic exchanges, where there are consistent and regular vertical and hierarchical structures that protect the rights of intellectual property creators (or at a minimum deter would be infringers). But in a world of many-to-many relationships, or a world characterized by many-to-many economic exchanges, the sometimes chaotic forces unleashed by widespread availability of cheap storage, digital distribution, and technical know-how requires a different approach (see this blog post). Dealing with these forces have left intellectual property creators to do things that make little sense and could actually stifle innovation (through patents on things such as one-click shopping). They need better avenues to protect their innovations.
At a minimum, I am deeply troubled by the prospect of individuals copying the APIs of an entire platform, and reverse engineering the implementation of those interfaces, when their primary motive is to avoid obtaining a license from the intellectual property creator / owner. We need a better way to protect the efforts of intellectual property owners while also creating an environment where those creators feel free to innovate. The long-term viability of a dynamic and growing economy depends on it.