Supreme Court of the United States
ORACLE AMERICA, INC.,
On Petition for Writ of Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit
Brief of Amicus Curiae Public Knowledge in Support of the Petition
SUMMARY OF ARGUMENT
Say that Delphi Corporation manufactures screws. It hits upon a new design for a screw socket—the interface between screw and screwdriver—that is more efficient than the prevailing Phillips and flathead insertions. Capitalizing on this novel idea, Delphi manufactures a line of screws using this socket, which it calls Sumatra.
The Sumatra socket is wildly popular. New lines of screwdrivers are made for the Sumatra socket. Engi- neering textbooks praise the Sumatra design. Woodworkers teach their sons and daughters to use it. And competing screw manufacturer Zillion decides to make its own screws compatible with the Sumatra socket. The screws otherwise differ, but use the Sumatra socket so that woodworkers need not purchase new tools.
Only then does Delphi declare the Sumatra socket a sculptural work, suing Zillion for copyright infringement.
Software programs are today’s screws and screwdrivers of computer engineering. Just as screws and screwdrivers require a common socket in order to work, software requires a common language—an application programming interface. And just as Delphi may not leverage copyright to block competition in screw socket shape, Oracle in the present case may not use copyright to monopolize the Java system interface.
Copyright is granted to promote the public interest in generating new creative works, and as such balances between securing incentives for authors and ensuring an open space of ideas upon which future creators may build. As part of that balance, this Court and others have repeatedly held, since the venerable Baker v. Selden, that no copyright may inhere in functional elements of a work. Such elements, being incidents of practical knowledge and the useful arts, cannot be restrained under a copyright system intended for aesthetic expression.
The Federal Circuit ignored this essential mandate, by finding copyrightable an element of software that is quintessentially a method of operation. Left uncorrected, that decision threatens to undermine the fundamental balance of copyright law.
But it also threatens to undermine the decades of progress in Internet and computer technology that have come about only because the openness of technology interfaces enabled enormous competitive growth. To sanction copyright, not on the workings of a computer program, but on the ways of using that program, would be to sanction monopolization of those fundamental elements that enabled such competitive growth.
This case thus presents a question of national importance on an issue of federal policy. This Court should grant certiorari to correct a decision that would other- wise stray far from longstanding precedent. This Court should grant certiorari to ensure that the progress of science and the useful arts is not slowed.
And this Court should grant certiorari to protect the constitutional balance of copyright law, now upset by a decision too zealous in expanding private rights at the expense of the public good. For what hangs in that balance is not merely a small corner of computer science. What hangs in the balance are those basic ideas that, as this Court once declared, must remain “free to all men and reserved exclusively to none.”