This Weeks Troubling API Patent

I found myself looped into another API patent situation. I’m going to write this up as I would any other patent story, then I will go deeper because of my deeper personal connection to this one, but I wanted to make sure I called this patent what it is, and what ALL API patents are–a bad idea. Today’s patent is for an automatch process and system for software development kit for application programming interface:

Title: Automatch process and system for software development kit for application programming interface

Patent# : US 20170102925 A1

Abstract: A computer system and process is provided to generate computer programming code, such as in a Software Development Kit (SDK). The SDK generated allows an application to use a given API. An API description interface of the system is operable to receive API-description code describing one or more endpoints of the API. A template interface is operable to receive one or more templates of code defining classes and/or functions in a programming language which can be selected by the selection of a set of templates. A data store is operable to use a defined data structure to store records of API description code to provide a structured stored description of the API. A code generation module is operable to combine records of API with templates of code which are arranged in sets by the language of the code they contain. The combining of records and code from templates may use pointers to a data structure which is common to corresponding templates in different sets to allow templates of selected languages to be combined with any API description stored.

Original Assignee: Syed Adeel Ali, Zeeshan Bhatti, Parthasarathi Roop, APIMatic Limited

If you have been in the API space for as long as I have you know that the generation of API SDKs using an API definition is not original or new, it is something that has been going on for quite some time, with many open source solutions available on the landscape. It is something everyone does, and there are many services and tooling available out there to deliver SDKs in a variety of languages for your API. It is something that just isn’t patent worthy (if there was such a thing anymore). It shouldn’t exist, and the authors should know better, and the US Patent Office should know better, but in the current digital environment we exist in there isn’t a lot of sensibility and logic when it comes to business in general, let alone intellectual property.

I haven’t pulled any patents as part of my API patent research in some time, so this particular patent hasn’t come across my radar. I was alerted to the patent via a Tweetstorm, shared with me in Slack by Adeel (one of the authors of the patent):

In which my response was, “oh. ouch. well, gonna have to think on this one sir. I’ll let you know my response, but I’m going to guess you might not like how I feel either. I’m not pro-patent. let me simmer on it for a couple days and I’ll share my thoughts.” As I was simmering I was pulled into the conversation again by Tony Tam:

In which my response was:

I was taking my usual time, gathering my thoughts in my notebook. Taking walks. Simmering. Then I wake up Saturday morning to this Tweet:

The comment did get me to Tweet a couple times, but ultimately I’m not going to engage or deviate from my initial response to gather my thoughts and write a more thoughtful post. The machine wants me to respond emotionally, fractionally, and in ways that can be taken out of context. This is how the technology space works, and keeps you serving it’s overlords–the money folks behind.

I do have to admit, when I first responded I was going to take a much harder line against APIMATIC, but after seeing the personal attacks on Adeel, his attempts to defend himself, then this no presence Twitter account coming at me personally, bringing into question that maybe I was being paid to write articles I changed the tone of this story significantly. The conversation around this patents shows what is wrong with the business and politics of APIs, more than anything API patents have done to the community to date.

First, Adeel doesn’t understand the entire concept of what Tony meant when he said patent, any more than he grasps what Tony meant by douchbag. This isn’t a jab at Adeel. It’s truth. Adeel is a Pakistani, living in New Zealand. I’ve spent the last couple of years engaging with him in person, and virtually via hangouts, Slack, and email. I’m regularly having to explain some very western concepts to him, and often find myself think deeply about what I’m saying to make sure I am bridging things properly. Not because Adeel isn’t smart (he’s exceptionally smart), it is just because of the cultural divide that exists between him and I.

Adeel didn’t file their patent out of some competitive ambition, or stealing of open source ideas as referenced in the Tweetstorm. He did it because it is what the academic environment where APIMATIC was born encouraged it, and it is something that is associated with smart ideas by the institution. This concept isn’t unique to New Zealand, it is something that still flourishes in the United States. Where the cultural bridge was necessary, is when it comes to why patents are bad. In these academic environments, you have a good idea, you patent it. It is something that historically acceptable, and encouraged. You see this across institutions and within enterprises around the globe, with patents as a measure of individual success. Adeel and his team had a good idea, so they patented it, he didn’t think he was doing anything wrong.

Addeel isn’t being any more aggressive or vindictive than Sal or Matt were with their hypermedia patents, or Jon Moore were with their patents. It is what their VCs, companies, and parent institutions encourage them to do with their good ideas (go after them and make your mark on the world). I fault all of these individuals just as much as I fault Adeel, or even Tony for that matter, when it comes to the name of an open source product suddenly becoming a trademarked product. Ironically this conversation is going up, right after a post regarding how much I respect Tony for his work, despite me be VERY upset about Swagger not remaining attached to an open source product we all had contributed so much to, and helped spread the word about. If we are worried about the sanctity of open source, we should be defending all dimensions of intellectual property. I know, not a perfect comparison, but I imagine Tony feels similar to what I did when this happened. Which I let him know via email, but have never gone after anyone individually, or personally, sicking my dogs on him, although I’m sure it might have felt that way.

All of this makes me think deeper about the relationship between open source and APIs. What are the responsibilities of companies who wrap open source technology with an API and offer a commercial service? How does licensing, trademarks, patents, and other intellectual property concerns need to be respected? I’m guessing I could go through many of the API patents in my research and find thatmost filings that did not consider or respect open source offerings that came before them. People had a good idea. They were in an environment that encourages patents, and they filed for a patent to show their idea was worthwhile–that USPTO stamp of approval is widely recognized as a way to acknowledge your idea is worthy.

I want to make clear. I am not defending patents. I am defending Adeel. I am doing so strongly, because of the no name person who decided to chime in and question the credibility of my API storytelling. Otherwise I would have laid things out, and told Adeel he needed to learn the lesson and move on. I just saw everyone piling on Adeel like he was a bad person, and some tech bro just patenting things to get the upper hand. I have known Adeel for years, and know that is not the situation. Once I started getting piled on as well, then it switched things into personal mode for me, and now I feel the need to defend my friend, but not his actions. The tech community loves to pile on, and I deal with wave after wave of tech bros who don’t read my work and accuse me of things that people who DO read my work would NEVER acuse me of. Adeel is my friend. Adeel is an extremely intelligent, honorable, kind-hearted person, and it pissed me off when people started piling on him.

Now that you understand my personal relationship, let’s address my business relationship. I am an advisor to APIMATIC. Not because I’m paid, or there are stock options, it is because he is my friend. In August (couple of weeks ago), Adeel and his investors had offered me a 0.25% share capital in the company but there has been no paperwork, nothing signed, and no deals made as of today. Honestly, after the $318 check I got for my latest advisory role, which I spent about 60 hours of work on, and travel costs out of my own pocket, I have little interest in pushing the conversations forward to the point where things ever get formalized. It just isn’t a priority for me, and damn sure has never influenced my writing about APIMATIC, let alone a story from June of 2015, like the Tweetstorm participant accused me of, without doing any due diligence on who I am. You are always welcome to ask ANY of my partners if I take money to write positive things about their products, or guest posts, you’ll get the same answer from all of them–it is something I get asked regularly, and just don’t give a shit about doing.

API patents are a bad idea. Patent #US 20170102925 A1, for an automatch process and system for software development kit for application programming interface is a bad idea. API patents are a bad idea because people think they are a sign of being smart when they are not. API patents are a bad idea because corporations, institutions, and organizations keep telling people it is a sign of being smart, and people believe it. API patents are a bad idea because the entire US Patent system is broken, because it is an intellectual property relic of a physical age, being leveraged in a digital realm where things are meant to be interoperable and reusable. API patents are bad idea because y’all keep doing them thinking they are a good idea, when they just open you up to being a tool that allows corporations to lock up ideas, and provide a vehicle for others to use them as leverage in a court of law, and behind closed doors negotiations. Ultimately whether or not patents are bad will come down to who litigates with their patent portfolios, and the patents they acquire. The scariest part is most of this leveraging and strong-arming won’t always happen in a public court, it will happen behind closed doors in arbitration, and with venture capital negotiations.

Which really brings me to the absurdity of this latest patent Tweetstorm. I’m all for showcasing that patents are a bad idea, and even shaming companies and individuals for doing them. However, I saw this one get personal a couple of times, and even took a jab at me. Y’all really shouldn’t do this shit in glass houses, because patents are just part of your intellectual property problems. The NDAs y’all are signing are a bad idea. Those deals you are making with VCs are mostly bad ideas. Y’all are just as ignorant, or maybe in denial about the deals you are making as Adeel is about the negative impacts of the US patent system. Most of these deals you make will result in your startup being wielded in more damaging ways than Adeel’s patent ever will. Yet you keep doing startups, signing deals, and attacking your competition, and people like me just investing in the community. Adeel is currently reading about patents, which I regret to say won’t provide him with the answers he is looking for. There are few books on the subject. Maybe reading something from Lawrence Lessig might get you part of the way there. The real answers you are looking for come from experience, and that is what you just received. This was an easy lesson, just wait until APIMATIC acquired by a bigco, and see your patents wielded in ways you never imagined–those will be some harder lessons.

I don’t have a problem with calling out Adeel for APIMATIC’s patent–it is what should happen. I have a problem with him being called douchbag, and the other personal attacks, and assumptions on his (and my) character that occurred within the Tweetstorm. By all means, call him out on Twitter. By all means, educate him around the damage to OSS and API community by doing patents. Don’t make these things personal, assume malicious intent, and recklessly begin questioning the character of everyone involved. Also, if you are just spending your time calling out you competitors for this behavior, because it bothers you, and you don’t call out your partners, and the companies you work for, and the services you use for their abusive use of OSS and damaging intellectual property claims, you have significantly weakened your argument, and won’t always be able to count on me to jump into the discussion and have your back. I do this shit full time, with no financial backing, corporate or institutional cover. I’m out here full time, not hiding behind a Twitter handle, holding folks accountable whenever and wherever I can. If you are doing a startup, learn from this story. Educate your institutions, companies, and investors about how API patents are damaging everything we are doing, and never will actually demonstrate you have a novel idea, it is just locking up other ideas.

In the end, everything we know as API is already patented. Look through the thousands of API patents in my research. Hell, Microsoft already has the patent on API definitions, so what does it matter if there is a patent on generating SDKs from API definitions? Also, my patent on API patents is pending, so it will all be game over then. Mwahahaha!! ;-) As Tony said, the patent system is broken. Let’s keep letting our companies, organizations, institutions, and most importantly the USPTO know that it is broken. Let’s keep calling out folks who still think API patents are a good idea (sorry Adeel), and schooling them on the why, but let’s not be dicks about it. Let’s not assume people have bad intentions. Let’s understand the history of patents and that many people are still taught that they are a sign of having good ideas and being what you do as part of regular business operations. Let’s just make sure we also lead by building a better API service or tooling, as Adeel brought up in his defense. Also, when he said this, he wasn’t making this an APIMATIC is better than Swagger Codegen (or others), he is just focused on making a better product in general. I’m sorry but he has. Y’all can focus on the merits of Swagger Codegen vs. APIMATIC, but what he’s done with the SDK docs, portal, and continuous integration, ARE great improvements. Much like the commercial service Swagger has become (ya know, the Swagger in Swagger Codegen) and evolved on top of the open source API specification and tooling Tony set into motion for ALL of us to build upon–thanks again Tony.

P.S. I wouldn’t have been so hard on Tony if I hadn’t been looped in to defend intellectual property and OSS like this.
P.S.S. I wouldn’t have been so easy on Adeel, if no name McTwitter account had accused me of selling out when I don’t do that.
P.S.S.S. Adeel, patents are bad because people use them in bad ways, and the US Patent Office is underfunded, understaffed, and can’t tell what is good or bad patents–this is the way bigcos want them.
P.S.S.S.S. Sorry I’m such an asshole everyone, but I hope y’all are getting somewhat used to it after seven years.

**Disclosure: **I am an advisor to APIMATIC (very proud of it)!