Doing The Research In Preparation For My Patent On A Patent API

David Berlind’s (@dberlind), Amid The API Copyright Controversy, An API Patent Claim Surfaces story from this last Friday, planted some ideas in my head around APIs and patents—something that once takes hold, becomes hopeless for me to resist, and 48 hours later, here are my initial thoughts.

Before I begin, let me state, patents and APIs, much like copryight and APIs, are not concepts I subscribe to, but because they are concepts that are being wielded in the API space, I am forced to enter the conversation.

I’ll let you read David’s piece on Pokitdok’s claim regarding their “patent-pending API” for yourself, something I find very troubling (about Pokitdok). My post is about my journey, after I read David's story, resulting in yet another research project into the politics of patents involving APIs. After reading David's story this Saturday AM (yeah I need a life), I started “googling” the concept of API patents, just to educate myself—my eternal mission at API Evangelist.

I was very surprised to find the number of results that come up when you search Google Patents for the term “application programming interface”—about 552,000 results (0.32 seconds), to be precise. What does this mean? I start reading, and 48 hours later I’m still reading. Sure there a number of older patents for hardware APIs, and even many APIs that were established during the web service heyday of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, but there is much more than that. I was surprised to see the number of patents with APIs as the main focus from API sector leaders like AWS, Twilio, Apigee, and Google.

I have to start with two of the most ironic API patents i have found so far, during my search:

  • Google (Through Unisys Patent Portfolio Acquisition) - Generation of Java language application programming interface for an object-oriented data store - An embodiment of the present invention is a technique to interface to a repository. A connection between a client and a repository database is established. The repository database has a repository application programming interface (API). The repository database contains objects related to a project management process. The repository API is communicated with to perform an operation based on parameters passed from the client via the connection. A return value associated with the operation is returned to the client.
  • CopyRightNow - CopyRightNow Application Programming Interface - Disclosed herein is a method and system for providing copyright protection for creative works from within a running content-creating software application by assembling and submitting a copyright application on the creative work to the United States Copyright Office through the use of a portable application programming interface, which may be utilized by third-party content-creating applications. Additionally disclosed is a method and system of registering a creative work in order to memorialize the creation of the creative work from within a running content creating application through the use of a portable application programming interface, which may be utilized by third-party content-creating applications. Additionally disclosed is a method and system for accessing and sharing copyright-protected creative works through a web accessible software application.

I spent most of the day Saturday looking through API patents, trying to separate the hardware from software, and the API adjacent to the specific API patents. I began my journey at Google Patent Search, and eventually find myself using Google Patent Search API (now deprecated), until I hit the wall, and I end up at the original data source, processing XML files. I’m only now getting to year 2013, after 24 hours or making sense of, writing a processing script, and downloading of patent XML files—so far I have 428 patents where “application programming interface” shows up in the title, abstract, description, or anywhere else in the content of a patent application.

You can view the entire patent listing here, and get the JSON file driving the listing here--as I process each year, going back to 1990, I will publish the resulting JSON.

My head is swimming. Once again I find myself neck deep in a concept I fundamentally disagree with, in hopes of understanding where the battle line exists within the API space, and educate myself enough so that I can articulate a line on this battlefield, in a war I refuse to participate in, yet I find myself sucked into.

From what I can see, API related patents are not something that that will happen in the future, it is already happening, and has been for quite some time. Sure there are many things that need separating when evaluating the 550K API related patents, but after 48 hours of research, I have to say that APIs are being patented at an increasing rate, and is something we just don't talk about publicly.

As I read through many of the titles, and abstracts, of the patent applications within each XML download I’ve been processing, I feel like I’m reading the antithesis of API Evangelist. On my blog I work every day to better understand how APIs are being used across each business sector, while looking to educate everyone about what is possible, sharing the best practices I discover along the way—when I read through the API patent abstracts, I see some very educated, and other not so educated bets on how APIs are being used, and where the future might be going, hoping to lock in these ideas, and extract value at some point in time.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that patents are a necessary evil in the world of big business and in startup-land, but it doesn’t change my contempt for them. I’m sure many of my API heroes like AWS and Twilio are just submitting patents in a defensive stance, but yet again it doesn’t shift reduce my concern. To channel my worr around patents being applied in the world of APIs, I’m kicking off deeper research, and monitoring in this dark, un-discussed alley of the API economy.

To help me with my research I dowloaded all of 2014 patent submissions, pulled out all the API related ones, and published as a patent API. To keep up with the amount of patent absurdity that I have read over this beautiful weekend, I have to state my own intent to submit a patent on providing patent APIs. I will take my patent API design, and ensure if you intend to ever organize your patents, and make accessible via APIs you have to pay the piper—cause you know, this is how this shit gets done!!