API Copyright: Restaurant Menu

I am gearing up for API copyright heading to the Supreme Court, having another look at whether or not the naming and ordering of your API interface is copyrightable, as well as whether or not reimplementation of it can be considered fair use. To help strengthen my arguments that API should not be copyrightable I wanted to work through my thoughts about how APIs are similar to other existing concepts that are not copyrightable. One of the old concepts I had worked through back in May of 2014, and was used by Google as part of their argument, was the notion that your API is just a menu for your organizational digital resources--I wanted to take a fresh look at this concept, and add it to the toolbox for when we head to DC.

The restaurant menu analogy is an important one to help people who really don’t understand APIs, as well as those who do understand APIs, but don’t understand the wider world of copyright. As I’ve said before, the problem here is purely because people can’t separate the interface from the backend, from the data, content, and media that flows through them. People simply see the entire things as an API. I want to keep making the argument that your backend code, and the data, content, and media that flows through can be copyrighted and patented—I don’t care. I’m arguing that the interface to these valuable resources needs to stay open, in the public domain, and should not be subject to copyright, just like the menu of a restaurant.

Your application programming interface (API) is not your application, it is the programming interface to your application. Your API is the menu to the digital resources and capabilities you possess within your company, organization, institution, or government agency. APIs are how your digital resources and capabilities are made known, accessed, and baked into your partners technological solutions. You want your APIs to be as open, accessible, intuitive, known, and reusable as they possibly can. Restaurants do not sue other restaurants for having menus, and technology companies shouldn’t sue other technology companies for having menus. If you want to get into arguments over the copyrighted and patented code, data, content, or media behind, that is another story, but don’t get litigious over the menus. C'mon!

So what if your competitor has messages, products, images, files, and other similar resources on their API menus. AWS has compute and storage, so does Azure and Google. McDonalds doesn’t sue Burger King for having burgers and fries on their menu. Why is the naming and ordering of our menu of digital resources some how a creative unique expression, when everybody else has the same creative unique expression? The answer is, they aren’t creative unique expressions. They are commonly known ways of defining and serving up digital resources that may seem new and novel one moment, but with just a couple months or years will be commodities that everyone is selling and exchanging across the web. The desire to apply copyright to these fast evolving digital resources is more about being able to lock up and capture value than it ever is about creative expression.

I recommend we all focus on standardizing how we define the menus for our digital establishments, and invest our energy in having the best quality ingredients and service—then people will flock to our platforms. If you notice the most successful digital platforms aren’t hiding their menus under the counter, they have them displayed prominently on the front of their establishments using standardized API portals. If you still see the API as your secret sauce I hate to say you are woefully behind in this game, and the chances are you don’t have what it takes when it comes to procuring the highest quality ingredients and talent for your products and services, and the process you employ to serve your customers are out dated and antiquated are pretty high. Copyrighting the menus to your organizational resources and capabilities is just going to make it so your establishment doesn’t stand out as people are walking by, and the word of mouth about what you bring the table will disappear—handing your competitive edge over to the next generation of businesses who actually doget it.