APIs Are About Iterating On Not Just The Tech, But Also The Business and Politics Of Your API

I’ve been reviewing the recently released Marvel Comic API, because I’m a comic book geek, wait no, because I’m the API Evangelist—no wait it is both. Properly reviewing an API takes time because you need to spend time in the developers area, and actually go through the motions of hacking on an API. So far I’ve registered, spent about 15 minutes looking around the documentation, and wrote a post on their getting started page.

My friend Andreas Krohn (@andreaskrohn) started by first reviewing the Marvel Comics API terms of use, which is the first thing any savvy developer should do, and he wrote up a great blogs post called, The Marvel API - a case study in how to not respect developers. Andreas uncovers some pretty show-stopping aspects of the Marvel terms of use,  including the fact that you can’t generate any revenue from your applications built on the Marvel API, publish press releases about your work, and they reserve the right to take any idea you have, and keep for themselves. ;-(

Through a developer lens, these are pretty clear signals that an API provider is more concerned with their own interests, and don’t care about developers success, and it is probably a good idea to steer clear of integrating with the platform. Through the lens of a major publisher who is first entering this scary new world of APIs, it starts to makes more sense. This is why the terms of service is the single most important building block of any API--it doesn’t matter how good your technical implementation of an API is, or how good your other building blocks like documentation are--if your TOS does not encourage innovation, developers will walk away.

Even with these extreme limitations placed on the TOS, I’m still very optimistic for the Marvel API. I agree 100% with Andreas’s analysis, but we also have to also celebrate that a major publisher like Marvel even being willing to play in the API game. I’ve been watching Pearson iterate on their API for over three years now, which reminds me that I should work with Andreas to do a deep dive on the Pearson TOS, and like the rest of us, Pearson is learning a lot along the way.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t critique the API initiatives of these companies. We should! They need to hear our feedback on every aspect of API operations, especially the terms of use, but we should also celebrate that they are even willing to put their cards on the table at all. We can’t expect companies with major brand recognition, and deep history, to change overnight. As with the rest of us, Marvel will eventually learn to open up, give more control and opportunities to developers and better understand the benefits of a more “open” API program.