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.


A brief moment of corporate sanity on copyright?

Walt Disney Animation StudiosContent producers can be notorious for using aggressive methods to protect their copyrights and trademarks. Recently, though, one major content producer, Disney, has backed off. With Frozen being a smash success, Disney has not gone after fans making their own cover versions of hit songs or even parodies.

Why the change?

It’s anyone’s guess, but I suspect it has to do with someone at Disney understanding that nothing is gained by making your fans angry. The RIAA’s strategy of suing customers didn’t earn it any friends (or collectible judgments, either).

For now at least, Disney seems to understand that by letting people make their own recordings of “Let It Go,” letting them create Frozen-inspired artwork, and (most of all) letting them express their love for Things Disney, the company will not lose money. If anything, Disney stands to make more money by letting the fans do their thing. After all, Disney has had many hit films, but I cannot think of a single one that resulted in kids and parents standing in line for hours to meet the stars of the film. The synergy created by the fans is as good as gold.

Let’s hope Disney’s lesson spreads to other content providers, and that the corporate sanity stays around for a while.