April 26, 2013

Want to Attract Developers to your API? Set Them Free


When it comes to APIs, credibility with developers is critical, whether you are trying to hire them, attract them to your developer network, or get them to build integrations and apps using your API. Anyone running an API program needs to understand what works and what doesn't when working with developers. Even if it's your API and your data, developers inside and outside your company building integrations are ultimately the ones who make or break the success of your API.

A recent high-profile case demonstrates some of the risks inherent in claiming rights to everything done with your API. Last June, a ruling last year by federal judge William Alsup in an Oracle vs. Google case  (currently under appeal by Oracle) was that "how-to" instructions represented by APIs cannot be subject to a copyright claim. In addition to their ownership claims being struck down, Oracle was ordered to pay Google $1M  to cover trial costs that Google incurred in the case.

The Oracle-Google case highlights something that anyone who has worked with APIs and developers already knows: just because you own and offer an API doesn't mean you "own" the developers who use it or the work they do with your API - even if they register and agree to your terms of use. Their apps use your API, but that doesn't mean they, or their methods, belong to you. The whole reason you have an API is to allow developers – yours, partners, perhaps individuals, depending on the nature of your API program – to create connections and build apps.  

Anyone who builds integrations with APIs knows that the vast majority of API terms of service and terms of use specifically mention in their Ownership and Licensing sections that the developers themselves own all the rights to whatever they build with APIs. This is a standard practice that developers check for when they evaluate APIs they want to use to build integrations and applications, along with commercial use, brand guidelines, notifications of updates, etc. This is good for developers because it frees them to build creatively, to experiment, and to try things with your API. It's good for API "owners" because it encourages creativity and innovation while protecting them from potential issues. If a particular integration or app is successful, both the developer and the API owner win.

That's why it's important to create a developer network for your API program the right way. There are three keys to successful developer networks:

  1. The first key is to remember a developer network is fundamentally about access to data and content. Access to data governed by API terms of service is effectively the UX of your company for developers, so you need to make it appealing to the developer audience. Any developer network is by definition a loose federation of individuals and companies who have agreed to access data in a way that creates value for both API provider and API developer. 
  2. The second key to a successful API program with developers is to provide every resource you can to help developers build quickly and successfully with your API and the data it allows them to access. The ability to access well-maintained code libraries, samples, great docs, and technical support is crucial. 
  3. The third key is to offer a way for developers to promote and showcase what they've created so that their work is visible and accessible to others – that's where the rubber really hits the road and determines both their success and yours.

Finally, API providers need to avoid claims of ownership of the developers who build integrations using their APIs. If you try to "own" developers and their work, you are likely to be in for a big wake up call. Drawing the ire of developers can happen fast and can have long-lasting effects. Own your data, make it great, and extend your business by attracting the best developers by giving developers access to data that lets them create valuable integrations and apps. Then support those developers and watch what happens – you'll see the amazing creativity that comes from having a great API program that supports developers and allows them to build and show off the apps and integrations that use your API. 

Question: Who owns your developers? 

Answer: No one does. Set them free to explore, remix and re-use your data in new and interesting ways that you could have never predicted.

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