Tech Lawyers Argue Over Copyright And App Developers Wait... 3 Reasons You Should Care

Google and Oracle have been locked in a legal battle over Android and Java technology, but the lawyers aren't arguing over patent anymore, but copyright infringement.  As many people know, an idea is not copyrightable, but the real question here is, is an API copyrightable? This one may go all the way to the Supreme Court.

Tech startups with unique processes and designs can successfully defend a patent, but can they protect the crux of the software language itself?  A US District Court has said that the language is not protected (“no matter how creative or imaginative a Java method specification may be, the entire world is entitled to use the same method specification (inputs, outputs, parameters) so long as the line-by-line implementations are different.”), but the US Court of Appeals, siding with Oracle, has found that systems and methods of operations are protected by Federal copyright.  Why should this matter to an app developer entrepreneur?

1. Reason #1: App Developers believe their product is unique.

Oracle, talking about Sun, the creator of Java, stated: " [D]evelopers spent years refining, writing, organizing, and promoting packages of computer source code to help outside application (“app”) programmers write new computer programs in the Java language faster and more efficiently by just incorporating the packages into their own Java programs. The packages were wildly popular, largely because they were written and organized in a way that made intuitive sense. A community of millions of application programmers coalesced around them. But everyone— IBM, Sony, Cisco, Red Hat, and others—understood that no one was allowed to use the packages without a license from Sun/Oracle."

Oracle's arguments may resonate with visionary app developers who believe they have created something so original that any subsequent "borrowing" of code will adversely affect the their visionary product.  The nature of copyright infringement has evolved over the past century, and the importance of copyright protection is rooted in preserving the creator's monopoly over an original work.

2. Reason #2: App Developers want to make money.

Google has argued that, "If the Federal Circuit’s holding had been the law at the inception of the Internet age, early computer companies could have blocked vast amounts of technological development by claiming 95-year copyright monopolies over the basic building blocks of computer design and programming. By the time Google and countless other innovators even came onto the scene, others could have locked up the field for longer than most people will live."  This argument is persuasive to the "little guy" who wants to innovate and hopefully hit it big, without fear of a federal copyright suit.

3. Reason #3: App Developers understand technology better than lay people.

The reality is that you have judges (and their law clerks) making determinations about the nature of code, which techy people understand, but legal people only have a vague understanding of the nuances of programming languages. The last thing you want to do when you craft the perfect app is wonder if you will be accused of swiping proprietary copyright-protected code because a "legal expert" has decided that code was special, and not a mere building block.

One of the interesting aspects to this long battle between tech giants is that judges have taught themselves the ins and outs of programming and methods.  Attorneys may have experience with programming, whether old-timers with a background in Basic, Fortran, Pascal, HTML, or PERL, or maybe younger attorneys with a working knowledge of Java and Ruby.  But app developers hire an attorney not to be an engineer but, instead, to be a translator and a guide, hungry to zealously represent a client and learn everything necessary from that client to be the best lawyer possible for that app developer.  It is an attorney's job to take the reins and put himself or herself in the shoes of the tech entrepreneur.

Related: Photography Law is Monkey Business (and Other Legal Issues Artists Should Ponder)