Application program interfaces and the law of copyright in South Africa: a proposal for an optimal approach

Master Thesis


Permanent link to this Item
Journal Title
Link to Journal
Journal ISSN
Volume Title

University of Cape Town

Application Program Interfaces are simple computer programs that enable other pieces of software to call on each other so as to operate in tandem. They are solely designed to perform this singular function, yet they have a significant impact on computer software development. The benefits of Application Program Interfaces include the increased speed and efficiency of computer program development. In essence, Application Program Interfaces enable interoperability between different computer programs that may otherwise have been unable to operate with each other. Developers are saved from the onerous task of having to develop new programs that will be able to work with their own, because the Application Program Interface acts as a catalyst between the different programs, as it were. Due to the function they perform, Application Program Interfaces are essential to computer software development, and are of high economic value. As Application Program Interfaces are computer programs, they are protected under the law of Copyright. This means that developers of Application Program Interfaces are able to exercise exclusive rights in copyright over these pieces of technology. This is problematic in the programming community, where there is a rapidly growing trend towards using and producing open source software. As such, there is a friction created between programmers who seek to use Application Program Interfaces freely, and the copyright owners who seek to derive an economic benefit. There is no controversy as to whether the literal elements of an Application Program Interface may be eligible for copyright or not. There is debate, however, as to whether, and to what extent, the non-literal elements of an Application Program Interface may be eligible for copyright. This debate brings to the fore the age-old idea-expression dichotomy, and the question of what elements constitute an idea or an expression. This paper will investigate the approach to Application Program Interfaces and copyrightability in South Africa, and make proposals as to the approach that ought to be taken. Guidance will be taken from the precedent and legal debates ongoing in other jurisdictions.