What The Oracle-Google Copyright Fight Has To Do With Klingon… And Lots Of Other Innovations
from the a-language-is-only-useful-if-it's-shared dept
We’ve already written plenty on the Obama administration’s absolutely ridiculous filing in the Oracle/Google case concerning the copyrightability of APIs. As we noted, the entire filing shows what appears to be a willful misunderstanding of the difference between “software” and an “API.” That’s problematic on many levels. In trying to explain this, we kept describing the API as something of a “recipe” — which is not covered by copyright — and how that’s different from the actual food. But Charles Duan has come up with potentially an even better comparison, noting that an API is quite like an invented language, and wondering what would happen if the creators of Klingon tried to claim copyright against anyone using Klingon.
…according to Oracle, copyright can protect a language and prevent others like Google from speaking it.
That’s the connection of the Oracle v. Google case to Klingon and other constructed languages like Esperanto or Lojban: If broadly read, the ruling against Google, which is where the case currently stands, could also deem the speaking of such languages to be copyright infringement.
This is actually quite interesting. Getting beyond Klingon, Duan mentions Lojban, which is a kind of proof of the problems this kind of thing can cause. Lojban is actually a re-created language, building off the ideas in Loglan, whose creators tried to lock it up claiming ownership. In that case, the creator, James Brown, tried (and failed) to use trademark law to block others from using “his” language.
But this is a key thing: languages are only useful if they’re shared and used more widely. The idea of locking up a language itself under copyright is almost nonsensical, but that’s exactly what the appeals court did and it’s what the Obama administration has now advocated for, based on a failure to understand the difference between an API and software.
And, of course, the impact on this goes beyond “languages” as Duan notes:
And it’s not just the linguists and Trekkies who should be concerned.
Invented languages are the foundation of all sorts of innovation. Most prominently, computer networking technology depends on languages, like the Wi-Fi protocol, so that multiple computers can communicate and understand one another. Those protocols also include formally defined commands (vocabularies) and rules of operation and syntax (grammars), making them languages almost exactly on par with the Java API. Other fields, such as medicine, engineering, and sports, rely on well-known jargon for efficient communication of specialized concepts.
Languages and APIs are how we communicate. Languages may be how humans communicate with one another, while APIs are often how computers communicate with one another. Copyrighting the very language of communication seems not just nonsensical but actively counterproductive when you think about it that way.
It’s just tragic that the lawyers working for the President didn’t think about it that way.