Love our open API? Talk to our lawyers, says If This Then That

Pinboard founder wigs out over terms of service that make API dependency toxic

Road closed

Updated Bookmarking site Pinboard has discovered one of the downsides of the so-called “API economy”: that moment when lawyers get in the way of a service.

In this blog post, founder Maciej Ceglowski claims that If This Then That – which, according to him, is a kind of “plumbing-as-a-service” glue-code site – has fired up new Developer Terms of Service that he can't live with.

IFTTT provides “shim code” so users – either individuals or other sites – can snap different capabilities together in recipes, like using a Facebook post to trigger a tweet (as Ceglowski says, “because you are a monster”).

With lots of working recipes in place, however, IFTTT has decided to switch from public, documented APIs to a private API (according to Ceglowski, the change is due to happen on April 4).

That's the first part of Ceglowski's complaint, because Pinboard would have a lot of work to do to make the change.

But it's a close read of IFTTT's new terms of service that bugs Ceglowski the most.

Deep in the legalese, claims Ceglowski, there's the usual “don't use our service to compete with us” rule, but other rules (which Ceglowski says are copied from an email, because there's no IFTTT URL for them) worry him more.

He writes that IFTTT claims ownership over content passing through its service (more on this later), requires third-party developers to maintain “100 per cent compatibility” with whatever might happen to its private API in the future, and claims patent rights over licensee-developed software to which it takes a shine.

(There's also a right to assign agreements, but that doesn't seem so objectionable to The Register, since the whole point of startup-land is to get acquired by someone like Facebook).

Apologising to Pinboard users for breaking IFTTT recipes they've created, Ceglowski suggests they “I recommend taking a look at Zapier or Botize, which offer a similar service, or at one of the dozens of new sites that will spring up next week to capture the market that IFTTT is foolishly abandoning”.

Analysis: If accurate, claims about ownership should send everybody who uses “glue service” sites – as well as other developer APIs – looking very closely at the terms of service they've agreed to.

Content ownership is a particularly interesting claim to make, because a quick perusal of IFTTT turns up recipes handling content that users probably think they own, such as:

As blogger Paul Wallbank writes, API stability is at the core of any business that depends on third party services to operate.

Nest is a case in point: it's already looking like a product that's stagnating in the vast monolith that Alphabet has become.

It's unlikely but feasible that if Nest lacks an internal champion, Alphabet might only notice it in a future spring cleaning, and third parties who depend on the Nest APIs will find themselves out in the cold. ®

Update

IFTTT has been in touch to point us to the publication of an email from CEO Linden Tibbets to all affected Pinboard + IFTTT customers, on its blog. Click here to read the email.

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