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Communications of the ACM

Legally speaking

Reimplementing Software Interfaces Is Fair Use

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Credit: Andrij Borys Associates, Shutterstock

A long-standing, generally accepted norm in the computing field distinguishes between software interfaces and implementations: Programmers should have to write their own implementing code, but they should be free to reimplement other developers' program interfaces. This norm, of which Sun Microsystems, the developer of Java, was once the software industry's foremost proponent, is now the law of the land in the U.S. after the Supreme Court's decision in Google Inc. v. Oracle America, Inc., which overturned a lower court ruling that reimplementing an interface infringed copyright.

The Supreme Court took Google's appeal on two issues. One was whether program interfaces are protectable by copyright law. The Supreme Court declined to decide that issue, even though many amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs filed by software developers, organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Center for Democracy & Technology, and the Computer & Communications Industry Association, as well as numerous intellectual property scholars, supported Google's argument that program interfaces are uncopyrightable.


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