CC Licenses, APIs and Content Stacks

I just read an article in Wired that pushed a lot of my buttons, and illustrates a number of the points in my talk at the PACA conference two weeks ago.

A company called Pro Populi has used some AOL data to create a new service that makes the data available in new ways, notably on a mobile platform. The data is published by AOL under a Creative Commons license which allows for reuse in an nearly unlimited number of ways, as long as credit is given.

At first I thought this was a story about people unwittingly giving away the store. As I have been writing recently, I think that many people are granting very broad licenses to use their content when they post on social media. This can come back to bite you when someone starts to build a new service with your data in ways you aren’t expecting.

This is a particular problem for media companies that publish stuff to other social media platforms. If you are a media company pushing your content online to Instagram or Facebook, you may find that the content shows up in competing products that you exercise no control over (and get no revenue from). The story in Wired uses this as the lead – AOL publishes database, and company scrapes up the whole thing, reformats it, and builds a new service with the data.

But buried in the 12th paragraph is the real story – the business implications of the Application Programming Interface or API. APIs allow one company to make their data available to another user, service, device or application. And they come with their own terms of service, with implications that few people understand.

On the surface, an API seems like a great way to short-cycle development. You can wire up the content or service into your own in a matter of minutes, hours or days, instead of months or years of development. It’s creating phenomenal growth as data stacks and business models are remixed on the fly.

But APIs typically come with take-it-or-leave-it usage terms. When you build with APIs, you run great risk that the service which is offering the API-fed data will simply turn off the spigot. If your business depends on the live link to the data that APIs provide, you are at the mercy of the provider. And that’s the story here, the one that Wired buried.

Welcome to APIworld. Over the next few years, APIs are going to become central to the battle for commerce and business development, particularly in the media realm. We’re going to be seeing this story a lot in the next few years, as more people find that they have built their businesses on agreements they did not even know they were making.

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