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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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Things To Hate About API-TOS

Comments (6)

I’m at the Glue Conference all day.  So far, it’s far exceeded my already high expectations.  I’m now sitting in the API track and the first two presentations have been dynamite.  Clay Loveless from Mashery just did a presentation titled “5 Things I Hate About Your API-TOS“.  He nailed it.  Here are his top five (most important last), along with some commentary from me. 

For simplicity, I’ll call the company providing the API’s the “platform company” and the companies using the API as the “ecosystem partners.”  Also – I’m not picking sides here as I’m an investor in both “platform companies” and “ecosystem partners”.  Rather, I’m just trying to summarize Clay’s points, bring out a few ideas, and give you a sense of the kind of stuff we are talking about at Glue.

5. Do You Think My Code is Yours?  While it may seem like a stretch that a platform company trying to create an ecosystem would try to assert this, the phrase “derivative rights” appears in a surprising number of platform company API’s.  And I’ve run into people that actually believe they own the code (or rights to the code) developed by their ecosystem partners.  The only thing I can say to this one is “be careful and don’t accept absurd assertions.”

4. It’s Just Tooooooo Loooooong.  This one is related to the next one, but it’s what happens when the lawyers take over.  See #3.

3. It’s Written in Legalese, But I Speak Geek.  Thanks for the 14 page TOS – now what the fuck does it mean?  Give me a one page summary in plain English and bullet points.  Be “ecosystem friendly” – all the time.  Don’t bury the lead on page 11.  Just tell me the rules so I can play by them.

2. Commercial Use OK Or Not?  I’m seeing this become increasingly contentious between some platform companies and their ecosystem partners.  Until the platform company is successful, this is a mellow and happy situation.  Once the platform company becomes successful, often in part to the adoption of their API by their ecosystem partners, the platform company starts trying to split out commercial and non-commercial use, at least in certain areas.  If you are an ecosystem partner and you think this evolution should be against the rules, just check page 10 of the TOS (per point #4) where it says “Company reserves the right to change any aspect of the TOS at any time in the future.” 

1. TOS != Product Roadmap Communication Platform.  As an ecosystem partner, you should assume the platform company will change its roadmap over time to support its business goals. It can be painful when this happens in the context of a TOS change, although I think there are some cases where the platform company just has to say “ok – here’s how we are going to do things going forward – deal with it.”  The solution to this one is clear and open bi-directional communication – as long as there is trust and no one is trying to hide the ball or do things that are clearly “over the line” in terms of the TOS, these situations are usually quickly resolvable with an appropriate commercial agreement.

Oh – and if you want to run Java on an Apple IIc, here’s how you do it.

  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/dasher Dasher

    Some good points as usual :)

    Any savvy developer will develop an abstraction layer between the API they are consuming and their app. This allows devs to switch to an alternative provider down the line without having too many dependencies to deal with. It adds a little code bloat – but it pays off as your business needs (or that of the API provider) change.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ianbetteridge Ian Betteridge

    "3. It’s Written in Legalese, But I Speak Geek. Thanks for the 14 page TOS – now what the fuck does it mean? Give me a one page summary in plain English and bullet points. Be “ecosystem friendly” – all the time. Don’t bury the lead on page 11. Just tell me the rules so I can play by them."

    Next up: Geeks demand the right to write contracts in C++.

    Seriously, this is stupid. If you're building a business – even a potential one – and can't be bothered to hire a lawyer for a couple of hours to read over a contract for you, then you have no right to complain if it comes back and bites you on the behind later.

  • http://www.naffziger.net/blog Dave Naffziger

    I think even he missed the worst one though – API TOS are increasingly being used to solidify and/or create monopolies. Apple banning platform development tools, Twitter banning third party ads, Google AdWords banning preventing campaign porting to other networks, etc.

    Most company TOS are a drag on innovation, which is ironic because the APIs themselves fuel it..

  • http://www.dresseslife.com dresses

    Any savvy developer will develop an abstraction layer between the API they are consuming and their app. This allows devs to switch to an alternative provider down the line without having too many dependencies to deal with. It adds a little code bloat – but it pays off as your business needs (or that of the API provider) change.

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