The Copyrightability of APIs

Apropos to the current discussions in the Oracle-Google trial, I wrote this in 2007:


One particularly difficult issue concerns copyright protection of header files. An individual name or symbol in a header file cannot be copyrighted, but the particular selection of symbols may be. The selection of symbols to be exported is inherent to API design, which could be a copyrightable creative decision. If you have ever heard programmers talking about “beautiful” or “ugly” APIs, you have wandered into the tricky middle ground of barely copyrightable expression.

In my opinion, the most likely scenario is a case-by-case determination. A bunch of constants would probably not support copyright. The entirety of an exported API is more likely copyrightable, but the header files would probably only support a “thin” copyright, where even trivial changes would be enough to avoid infringement. No one really knows, though, because the law of copyright is changing day by day.

For header files in particular, the rationale for copyright protection is substantially weakened when there is a second compatible implementation of a library. In that case, the headers, as creative as they might be, would probably merge into the functional interface supported by many concrete implementations.

For example, take the C++ standard template library (STL). There are a number of different implementations of the STL, all copyrighted by different authors. The STL headers themselves, however, have become just functional descriptions of the underlying copyrighted implementations. All STL implementations must use identical function definitions in the header files, or they would not be source-compatible with each other.