Is Your Online Business Ready For The API Economy?

Author:Mr Philip Nolan and Mark Adair
Profession:Mason Hayes & Curran

Organisations across the world are recognising that APIs are fuelling e-commerce and becoming the building blocks of the online economy. The New Zealand government has recently launched an API portal to encourage businesses to integrate with government services. Closer to home, more and more businesses in Ireland are becoming reliant on APIs which operate in the background of many of the software and mobile apps we use every day. APIs also hit the news headlines last year when hackers used an altered API to steal Snapchat images from a third-party app that allows users to retrieve their photos from Snapchat's server. But what is an API, and how can organisations ensure that they are legally protected when taking advantage of this new technology?

What is an API?

In its simplest terms, an Application Programming Interface (API) is a series of instructions that allows one computer program to interact and communicate with another computer program. Almost every digital interaction in Web 2.0 involves an API being called to gather data or invoke an action.

From a practical perspective, APIs provide customers or developers with a standardised way of accessing a third party's products or functionality, other than through a traditional website. The benefit of using an API is that the market will be able to come to your business through your API in a kind of self-service model, as opposed to the traditional model of requiring traffic to come directly through your website.

For example, a real estate agent could use an API published by Google to embed a customised Google Map in its mobile app, allowing customers to search for the exact locations of properties and to interact with those listed on the map. Similarly, PayPal's API allows a developer of a mobile app, say a fashion retailer, to build an app around PayPal mobile payments functionality to create a more efficient user experience when checking-out.

Copyright in an API?

To date it has not been clear whether an API and its constituent specifications are protectable under Irish intellectual property law. In the US, Oracle and Google have been involved in an extremely complex billion dollar copyright battle in relation to whether interfaces, including APIs, can be protected by copyright. The dispute concerns Oracle's copyright and patent claims against Google's Android operating system. Oracle claims that when Google was developing Android it infringed Oracle's intellectual property related to...

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