A better analogy in Oracle vs Google: API is jargon

As a software developer I know that in Oracle vs Google, Google and Judge Alsup are right and Oracle and the White House are wrong. But perhaps we need a better analogy to explain to non-developers that APIs are not copyrightable.

A word of caution: I am definitively not a lawyer, and you will not find even the beginning of a legal argument there. This is just an attempt of explaining by analogy what I think APIs are, not only as someone who make a living from using them, implementing them and when forced to do so, inventing new one, but also as someone who will greatly suffer if the minefield that is software development is made even more dangerous if API are deemed copyrightable.

When I read some of the arguments from Oracle and in particular the book chapter titles analogy, I felt it contrived and only superficially explaining what APIs are – the analogy breaks down quickly when you try to look at it more deeply. So I came up with something a little bit better, which is that an API is a jargon.

Jargon, as defined by The Concise Oxford Dictionary is “words or expressions used by a particular profession or group that are difficult for others to understand.” Note that it is not a set of new words that are specific to a group or profession, but words that are used with a different meaning for the purpose of improving communication of ideas inside that group or profession.

As an example taken from the Computing group or profession, the word “protocol” as a very specific meaning. In the same dictionary it has this separate definition: “Computing; a set of rules governing the exchange or transmission of data between devices.” Note also that even inside a group or profession, sub-groups can develop their own jargon, making it difficult to communicate to each other, but greatly improving it inside these sub-groups: The IETF and the ITU can be a good example of that.

An API is very close to that: Ordinary words or arrangements of words (expressions) that have a different meaning. If we take the java.net package as an example, each of the word used (can be verbs or nouns, etc…) have a very different sense than is used generally: Socket.isConnected() does not mean to test that an electrical socket has a plug into it, it means something different in this jargon (namely that an identifier is associated with some state resulting of a successful protocol exchange).

And if we want to push the analogy a bit further, one can imagine a dictionary that explain each of the words and expressions used by a jargon (The New Hacker’s Dictionary is a good example of that). The definition of each word or expression would be copyrightable, and is equivalent to the implementation of an API. Someone can write a different dictionary for the same jargon, but could not copy word for word the definitions for the first one – that would be the equivalent of Google, taking the jargon known as the standard Java library (developed by Sun and many others through the JCP), and writing a new implementation.

As I said there is not a legal argument there, but the question that can now be asked is this: Although it is perfectly clear that in a jargon dictionary the text of the definitions is copyrighted, is the list of words and expressions defined by this dictionary also copyrighted? I believe that the same answer is applicable to APIs.

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