A high tech legal battle anyone can understand

You may not realize it, but every day you probably use software that takes advantage of application programming interfaces (APIs). Basically, an API is a set of specifications that lets one piece of software talk to another. When you use an app on your iOS or Android device, the app uses APIs to communicate with the operating system. Or, as an Electronic Frontier Foundation court brief explains it,

So when you type a letter in a word processor, and hit the print command, you are using an API that lets the word processor talk to the printer driver, even though they were written by different people.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit recently held that APIs are protected by copyright law. If the ruling stands, it means the API owners can decide which applications will get to use the API and which ones won’t. If an API owner decided to punish Microsoft, for example, it could decide that Microsoft Word could not use the API to connect to printers, yet continue to allow WordPerfect users to print seamlessly. The result would mean Microsoft would either have to pay for access to the API or dedicate resources to developing its own API.

The Federal Circuit seems to have misunderstood the difference between specifications and computer code. The specifications are akin to standardization of certain things. Light bulbs, for example, use standard sizes so you can buy a bulb from GE, Sylvania, Philips, or anyone else and know it will fit in your lamp at home. Imagine the chaos in your local Home Depot if such standardization did not exist. I had a similar experience recently when I needed to buy a quart of motor oil that met a certain manufacturer’s specification. I stood for five minutes in Auto Zone reading the fine print on several different types of motor oil until I found the right one.

At this point, there is no indication whether the Supreme Court of the United States will review the Federal Circuit’s decision. Let’s hope it does and that wiser minds prevail.


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