API Licensing Commons Launched

According to TechCrunch, at Defrag Conference 2013, 3Scale Founder Steven Willmott and API Evangelist Kin Lane launched a service called API Commons, which aims to provide a simple and transparent tool for developers to freely design, share, and use application program interface (API) specifications and data models under Creative Commons licenses. This effort seeks to address the uncertainty of copyright interests in APIs, and the uneven licensing practices that apply to them.

The district court order in the recent Oracle v. Google case, issued on May 31, 2012, spoke to the protectability under copyright of certain APIs. However, the case is currently on appeal to the Federal Circuit, which may offer further guidance on copyright protection for APIs.  It has long been understood that copyright protection of schema, APIs and similar program specifications is thin.  Courts have not expressly and categorically opined that they are unprotectable, but that has been the working assumption of many in the software industry based on the teachings of Computer Assoc. V. Altai and Lotus v. Borland, the seminal software copyright cases of the 1990s.  (Lotus involved the copyright interest — or lack thereof — in a menuing heirarchy.)  If the API issue remains unclear, developers who use others’ API operate in a gray zone, uncertain as to whether licenses are necessary. Similarly, developers of the APIs may offer no express license to use them, assuming that it might not be necessary to do so.