Critics said the pandemic would make the industry flee San Francisco and its southern neighbor, Silicon Valley. But tech can’t seem to quit its gravitational center.
APIs, or application programming interfaces, make the digital world go round. Working behind the scenes to define the parameters by which software applications communicate with each other, APIs underpin every kind of app — social media, news and weather, financial, maps, video conferencing, you name it. They are critically important to virtually every enterprise organization and industry worldwide.
Given APIs’ ubiquity and importance, it’s understandable that all industry eyes were on the U.S. Supreme Court’s April 5 ruling in Google LLC v. Oracle America Inc., an 11-year-old case that addressed two core questions: Whether copyright protection extends to an API, and whether use of an API in the context of creating a new computer program constitutes fair use. Google lawyers had called it “the copyright case of the decade.”
I was one of 83 computer scientists — including five Turing Award winners and four National Medal of Technology honorees — who signed a Supreme Court amicus brief stating their opposition to the assertion that APIs are copyrightable, while also supporting Google’s right to fair use under the current legal definition.
We explained that the freedom to re-implement and extend existing APIs has been critical to technological innovation by ensuring competitors could challenge established players and advance the state of the art. “Excluding APIs from copyright protection has been essential to the development of modern computers and the Internet,” the brief said.
The Supreme Court ruling was a mixed bag that many observers are still parsing. In a 6-2 decision, justices sided with Google and its argument that the company’s copying of 11,500 lines of code from Oracle’s Java in the Android operating system was fair use. Great! At the same time, though, the court appeared to be operating under the assumption that APIs are copyrightable.
“Given the rapidly changing technological, economic and business-related circumstances, we believe we should not answer more than is necessary to resolve the parties’ dispute,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the majority. “We shall assume, but purely for argument’s sake, that (the code) “falls within the definition of that which can be copyrighted.”
While it may take years to fully understand the ruling’s impact, it’s important to keep dissecting the issue now, as APIs only continue to become more essential as the pipes behind every internet-connected device and application.
The legal saga began when Google used Java APIs in developing Android. Google wrote its own implementation of the Java APIs, but in order to allow developers to write their own programs for Android, Google’s implementation used the same names, organization, and functionality as the Java APIs.
Oracle sued Google in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in August 2010, seven months after it closed its acquisition of Java creator Sun Microsystems, contending that Google had infringed Oracle’s copyright.
In May 2012, Judge William Alsup ruled that APIs are not subject to copyright because that would hamper innovation. Oracle appealed the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals, which reversed Judge Alsup in May 2014, finding that the Java APIs are copyrightable. However, he also sent the case back to the trial court to determine whether Google has a fair use defense.
A new District Court trial began in May 2016 on the fair use question. A jury found that Google’s implementation of the Java API was fair use. Oracle appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals in March 2018 again reversed the lower court. Google filed a petition with the Supreme Court in January 2019, receiving a hearing date in early 2020. However, lengthening the case’s torturous path through the courts even further, COVID-19 forced oral arguments to be postponed to last October. Finally, on April 5, the Supreme Court settled the matter.
Or did it?
“Supreme Court Leaves as Many Questions as It Answers in Google v. Oracle,” read a headline on law.com. The National Law Review said: “The Supreme Court sidestepped the fundamental IP issue — whether or not Oracle’s software code at the heart of the case is copyrightable.”
On one hand, I’m disappointed that the court’s ruling left even a hint of ambiguity about whether APIs are copyrightable. To be clear: APIs should be free of copyright, no ifs, ands or buts.
APIs provide structure, sequence, and organization for digital resources in the same way that a restaurant menu does for food. Imagine if Restaurant A, which serves burgers, fries, and shakes, couldn’t use the same words, as well as the ordering and organization of the words, on their menu as Restaurant B. A menu doesn’t represent a novel expression; rather, it is the ingredients, processes, and service that define a restaurant. Both burger places benefit from the shared concept of a menu and the shared knowledge among their consumers of what burgers, fries and shakes are. It is the execution of the menu that ultimately will set one restaurant apart from another.
Likewise, APIs are not intellectual property; they are the simply operational elements that are common, reusable, remixable, and able to be put into use in as many applications by as many developers as possible.
This pattern plays out over and over across many different sectors of our economy where APIs are being used, reused, and remixed to generate new kinds of applications, integrations or entirely new companies and products or services. Immense value is generated by the free, collective, collaborative and open evolution of APIs.
On the other hand, I’m pleased by the part of the Supreme Court ruling that widens the definition of fair use. I think that provides the scope needed to take the industry into its API future without too much friction.
I also believe the case will chill future attempts by other companies to engage in litigation over API copyright. In the end, the decade-long Google vs. Oracle case negatively affected Oracle’s image when it comes to the fast-growing API sector, and I suspect other companies will think twice before going to court.
Nevertheless, companies may want to be extra cautious about licensing their APIs using the widest possible license, applying a Creative Commons CC0 or CCY-BY to APIs built with tolls and specifications, such as Swagger, OpenAPI, and AsyncAPI.
Now that Google vs. Oracle is finally history, I feel that the API sector will remain as vibrant as ever. That’s excellent news for everybody.
The mood about technology has soured more recently, but bosses’ paychecks have mostly remained unscathed.
In siding with Google, the Supreme Court gave software experts some love.
The 6-to-2 ruling ended a decade-long battle over whether Google had improperly used Java code in its Android operating system.
The insane saga of a potential forced sale of TikTok’s US operations is reportedly ending — another victim of the transition to methodical and rational policymaking that appears to be the boring new normal under the Presidency of Joe Biden.
Last fall, the U.S. government under President Donald Trump took a stab at “gangster capitalism” by trying to force the sale of TikTok to a group of buyers including Oracle and Walmart.
While the effort was doomed from the start, with TikTok’s parent company ByteDance winning most of the legal challenges to the government effort, a Rubicon had effectively been crossed where the U.S. government appeared willing to spend political capital to stymie the growth of a successful foreign business on its shores for the flimsiest of security reasons.
Now, The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the efforts by the U.S. government to push the deal forward “have been shelved indefinitely”, citing sources familiar with the process.
However, discussions between TikTok and U.S. national security officials are continuing because there are valid concerns around TikTok’s data collection and the potential for manipulation and censorship of content on the app.
In the meantime, the U.S. is taking a look at all of the potential threats to data privacy and security from intrusions by foreign governments or using tech developed overseas, according to Emily Horne, the spokeswoman for the National Security Council.
“We plan to develop a comprehensive approach to securing U.S. data that addresses the full range of threats we face,” Horne told the WSJ. “This includes the risk posed by Chinese apps and other software that operate in the U.S. In the coming months, we expect to review specific cases in light of a comprehensive understanding of the risks we face.”
Last year, then-President Trump ordered a ban on TikTok intending to force the sale of the Chinese-owned, short form video distribution service to a U.S.-owned investment group.
As part of that process, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. ordered ByteDance to divest of its U.S. operations.
TikTok appealed that order in court in Washington last November as the U.S. was roiled by the presidential election and its aftermath.
That case is still pending, but separate federal court rulings have blocked the U.S. government from shutting TikTok down.
Business is about accountability.
The obituary for California’s tech industry has been written before, and it will be rewritten again and again and again.
Salto, a Tel Aviv-based open-source startup that allows you to configure SaaS platforms like Salesforce, NetSuite and HubSpot with code, is coming out of stealth today and announced that it has raised a $27 million Series A round. This round was led by Bessemer Venture Partners, Lightspeed Venture Partners and Salesforce Ventures.
The general idea here — which is similar to the ‘infrastructure-as-code’ movement — is to allow business operations teams to automate the labor-intensive and error-prone ways they currently use to manage SaaS platforms. While others in this space are betting on no-code solutions for managing these systems, Salto is going the other way and is betting on code instead.
“We realized the challenges BizOps teams face are very similar to the problems encountered by software and DevOps engineers on a daily basis,” writes Salto co-founder and CEO Rami Tamir in today’s announcement. “So we adapted software development fundamentals and best practices to the BizOps field. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel; the same techniques used to make high-quality software can also be applied to keeping control over business applications.”
Salto makes the core of its service available as open source. This open-source version includes the company’s NaCI language, a declarative configuration language based on the syntax of HashiCorp’s hcl, a command-line interface for deploying configuration changes (and fetching the current configuration state of an application) and a VS Code extension.
In combination with Git, business operations teams can collaborate on writing these configurations and test them in staging environments. The company is essentially taking modern software development practices and applying them to business operations.
“Defining a company’s business logic as code can make a fundamental change in the way business applications are delivered,” writes Tamir. “We like to think about it as ‘company-as-code,’ much in the same way as ‘infrastructure-as-code’ transformed the way we manage data centers.”
Some of the use cases here are configuring custom Salesforce CPQ fields, and syncing profiles across Salesforce environments and maintaining audio logs for NetSuite. For now, the company only supports connections to Salesforce, HubSpot and NetSuite, with others following soon.
Like other open-source companies, Salto’s business model involved selling a hosted version of its service, which the company is also announcing today.
In terms of raising this new round, it surely helped that the founding team, which includes Benny Schnaider and Gil Hoffer, in addition to Tamir, previously sold the three companies they founded. Pentacom was acquired by Cisco earlier this year; Oracle acquired Ravello Systems in 2016 and Qumranet was acquired by Red Hat in 2008.
“Business agility is more important than ever today, and the alignment of external business services to real business needs is increasing in strategic importance,” said Alex Kayyal, Partner and Head of International at Salesforce Ventures . “BizOps teams are becoming more and more crucial to the success of companies. With Salto they are empowered to meet the tasks they are charged with, equipped with modernized methodologies and a greatly enhanced toolbox.”
In a case with major implications, the justices wrestled with a high-tech dispute over computer code using low-tech analogies.
The Supreme Court will hear arguments tomorrow in Google v. Oracle. This case raises a fundamental question for software developers and the open-source community: Whether copyright may prevent developers from using software’s functional interfaces — known as APIs — to advance innovation in software. The court should say no — free and open APIs protect innovation, competition and job mobility for software developers in America.
When we use an interface, we don’t need to understand (or care) about how the function on the other side of the interface is performed. It just works. When you sit down at your computer, the QWERTY keyboard allows you to rapidly put words on the screen. When you submit an online payment to a vendor, you are certain the funds will appear in the vendor’s account. It just works.
In the software world, interfaces between software programs are called “application programming interfaces” or APIs. APIs date back to the 1950s and allow developers to write programs that reuse other program functionality without knowing how that functionality is performed. If your program needs to sort a list, you could have it use a sorting program’s API to sort the list for your program. It just works.
Developers have historically used software interfaces free of copyright concerns, and this freedom has accelerated innovation, software interoperation and developer job mobility. Developers using existing APIs save time and effort, allowing those savings to be refocused on new ideas. Developers can also reimplement APIs from one software platform to others, enabling innovation to flow freely across software platforms.
Importantly, reusing APIs gives developers job portability, since knowledge of one set of APIs is more applicable cross-industry. The upcoming Google v. Oracle decision could change this, harming developers, open-source software and the entire software industry.
Google v. Oracle and the platform API bargain
Google v. Oracle is the culmination of a decade-long dispute. Back in 2010, Oracle sued Google, arguing that Google’s Android operating system infringed Oracle’s rights in Java. After ten years, the dispute now boils down to whether Google’s reuse of Java APIs in Android was copyright infringement.
Prior to this case, most everyone assumed that copyright did not cover the use of functional software like APIs. Under that assumption, competing platforms’ API reimplementation allowed developers to build new yet familiar things according to the API bargain: Everyone could use the API to build applications and platforms that interoperate with each other. Adhering to the API made things “just work.”
But if the Google v. Oracle decision indicates that API reimplementation requires copyright permission, the bargain falls apart. Nothing “just works” unless platform makers say so; they now dictate rules for interoperability — charging developers huge prices for the platform or stopping rival, compatible platforms from being built.
Free and open APIs are essential for modern developers
If APIs are not free and open, platform creators can stop competing platforms from using compatible APIs. This lack of competition blocks platform innovation and harms developers who cannot as easily transfer their skills from project to project, job to job.
MySQL, Oracle’s popular database, reimplemented mSQL’s APIs so third-party applications for mSQL could be “ported easily” to MySQL. If copyright had restricted reimplementation of those APIs, adoption of MySQL, reusability of old mSQL programs and the expansion achieved by the “LAMP” stack would have been stifled, and the whole ecosystem would be poorer for it. This and other examples of API reimplementation — IBM’s BIOS, Windows and WINE, UNIX and Linux, Windows and WSL, .NET and Mono, have driven perhaps the most amazing innovation in human history, with open-source software becoming critical digital infrastructure for the world.
Similarly, a copyright block on API-compatible implementations puts developers at the mercy of platform makers say so — both for their skills and their programs. Once a program is written for a given set of APIs, that program is locked-in to the platform unless those APIs can also be used on other software platforms. And once a developer learns skills for how to use a given API, it’s much easier to reuse than retrain on APIs for another platform. If the platform creator decides to charge outrageous fees, or end platform support, the developer is stuck. For nondevelopers, imagine this: The QWERTY layout is copyrighted and the copyright owner decided to charge $1,000 dollars per keyboard. You would have a choice: Retrain your hands or pay up.
All software used by anyone was created by developers. We should give developers the right to freely reimplement APIs, as developer ability to shift applications and skills between software ecosystems benefits everyone — we all get better software to accomplish more.
I hope that the Supreme Court’s decision will pay heed to what developer experience has shown: Free and open APIs promote freedom, competition, innovation and collaboration in tech.
While President Trump has blessed a deal for TikTok, the video app filed to stop a ban of its service that is set to go into effect on Sunday.
Banned apps, nefarious theories, trade wars, voiceless users. The case of TikTok isn’t news to most of the world.
Companies involved in a deal to resolve TikTok’s future publicly clashed over the arrangement, while President Trump threatened to block any deal that left the service in Chinese hands.
The agreement for the social media app falls short of President Trump’s promises.
Silicon Valley stars Reid Hoffman and Mark Pincus explain what makes their blank-check company different.
Deal makers involved in the talks to sell TikTok are exasperated.
Senate Republicans and others criticized the latest plan to allow TikTok to continue operating in the United States, citing national security concerns.
Forcing the unspooling of a complex global company is not as easy as yelling about the “China menace.”
The Chinese-owned app designed a compromise to satisfy U.S. security concerns. The terms are now under review by the Trump administration.
The TikTok battle was a chance to debate big questions about technology and government. We missed it.
The move leaves Oracle as the sole known remaining bidder, as the clock ticks down on President Trump’s executive order to block the app.
The tech giant stands out in Silicon Valley for its close ties to the administration, which must bless any deal for the social media app.
In an 11th-hour twist, Beijing raised a potential hurdle for a sale of TikTok, further roiling the race to buy the Chinese-owned app.
Neither side wanted a big deal. But what began as talks about a small investment ballooned with interventions from President Trump.
President Trump, who has been pushing for a sale of the Chinese-owned video app, did not say whether Oracle would be a better buyer than Microsoft.
A litigator asserts that she faced reprisal after saying Secretary Eugene Scalia was set to settle a discrimination suit for a sum she found too low.