The End of Magic: Patent/Copyright Warfare and APIs

Thursday Nov 15, 2012 by Jesse Waites - Plate Techtonics: When Unstoppable forces Meet Immovable Objects

Lets suppose that you and I are at a restaurant together in the North End. The waiter comes over to us with a menu, and it is up to us to decide what we each want to eat. Now the kitchen itself is full of many different supplies and ingredients that could be combined in millions of different ways, but thankfully we have that menu. The menu serves as a sort of  contract between ourselves and the kitchen staff, and the waiter serves as the intermediary. We make a selection through the menu, and the waiter communicates this choice to the kitchen staff. The Chef then uses the ingredients in the kitchen to assemble our request to our specifications and delivers them to us back through the Waiter.

There is a term in computer science called an API that sort of does the same thing the waiter does- Takes a limited number of queries, delivers that query to a server, and replies with a limited number of responses. Although this happens under the hood, you are already very familiar with this process but likely don’t notice it (Which is kind of the point). You open your Maps App on your Android or iPhone and press the GPS button... A moment later your position appears on the map as a blue dot.  APIs are the magic that allows apps and many other kinds of software communicate with each other, and big companies are trying to steal that magic from us. 

Earlier this year,in a long running case between Oracle and Google, a judge rightly ruled that APIs cannot be copyrighted. Oracle claimed that parts of Google's Android code were too similar to code used in Oracles Java programming language. It is my opinion that this stems from outright jealousy and the desire for money, with big companies often engaging in litigation with each other over patents. For example, Google has to pay Apple one dollar for every Android device sold, thanks to certain patents Apple holds. Patent and copyright warfare like this is bad for innovation, bad for the economy, and bad for small tech buisnesses.

Oracle has since appealed that original ruling and a 3 panel judge panel will soon decide if the original ruling will stand. Please contact your local legislators and tell them that to end copyright and patent warfare, and click here to tweet and show your support to the Electronic Freedom Foundation and help stop the copyrighting of APIs, interoperability, and magic. 

Jesse Waites is an animal lover, writer, technology activist, Founder and CEO of, and is on the MIT Enterprise Forum Innovation Series Planning Committee.  You can usually find him walking his dog Finn in and around Boston or reading physical novels made out of actual paper in locally owned coffeeshops.  He can be reached @JesseWaites on Twitter.

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