Valve’s Steam Deck is a new handheld gaming device that can play PC games. First of all, my official product review: it is very cool. With that established, let’s talk about the really interesting stuff: copyright doctrine.
The long-running and bitter fight between Oracle and Google concluded in 2021, when the Supreme Court ruled 6-2 (in a decision written by Stephen Breyer, with Justices Thomas and Alito dissenting) that re-implementing Application Software Interfaces (APIs) – a form of software library – was a fair use. Google had written its own code that was functionally identical to existing Java software to make it easier for developers to write for the then-new Android platform. A developer’s code might ask the system for particular information, or to perform some kind of calculation. By re-implementing Java APIs on Android, Google made it so that a developer’s code can ask the system for the same things, in the same way, and get an answer back it understands. While the “functional” code in a re-implemented API might be totally new and different from the original, the new code still has to essentially call things by the same names.
The Supreme Court rightly found that this is pro-competitive and legal. Copyright law is not intended to lock software developers to proprietary platforms or prevent the emergence of new compatible platforms.
There is probably not a major computing platform that exists today that doesn’t use code that re-implements an API, and there are countless historical examples. Microsoft got its start in operating systems, for example, with MS-DOS (Microsoft Disk Operating System), which was designed to be compatible with CP/M (Control Program/Monitor), a popular operating system among early home computer users. It’s great that companies like Valve get the same chance that Microsoft did to build a new platform.
The Steam Deck is great (as a product, but also as an example) because it is neither a curio from computing history, nor some high-level developer tool, but a thing you can buy and hold in your hands. And its legality would have been seriously called into question had Google v Oracle gone the other way.
That’s because the Steam Deck is a mini Linux computer, and it only works because it re-implements (and translates) Windows APIs so that games written for Windows don’t need Windows to operate anymore. For example, many Windows games use Microsoft’s graphics API Direct3D. The Steam Deck allows Direct3D games to work on Linux by translating between Direct3D and Vulkan, an open standard. And, I’m sure, a thousand other things. But that’s a big one.
Proton, the software that does this, is created by Valve and CodeWeavers. This software allows you to run Windows programs without Windows. It’s based on software called WINE, which is a decades-long project to create a free re-implementation of Windows. I remember trying to use WINE to run some Windows apps in the 1990s. It was pretty rough for ordinary users. Proton is much more elegant and easier to use.
I believe that the Steam Deck is what new competition in computing platforms is going to look like. It’s extremely difficult to jump-start a new computing platform. By re-implementing established APIs, platform creators can make it so that a vast library of existing software can run, or at least give developers a familiar environment to develop software for.
Further, while Google may have prevailed in the Supreme Court, what is good for the goose is good for the gander. There are several projects out there to re-implement some of Google’s proprietary Android APIs, for instance. (The core of Android is open source, but many Android apps will not function without access to APIs that have never been “open.”) Projects like these mean that a handset manufacturer can ship its own fully functional Android phone without any Google software, without asking Google’s permission, and without agreeing to Google’s terms. Even if you hate Google, you should be glad it won at the Supreme Court.
And, if you like the Steam Deck, you should be thankful that the Supreme Court got this one right for fair use.