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Do APIs need a 'do unto others' golden rule?

Ride-hailing service Uber is in an über-snit about how a handful of Harvard Business School students are using its developer API in a price-comparison mobile app. Uber, whose own app rained unsympathetic digital disruption and life-altering upheaval upon the taxi and limousine industry, apparently can’t take a dose of its own medicine.

According to the Boston Globe, an app called urbanhail ingests Uber pricing data via Uber’s API. As urbanhail puts it, “urbanhail gives you all of your ridesharing and taxi options in one click to help you save time and money.” The app currently serves only Boston.

From where I sit, this doesn’t seem any different than Kayak, Expedia, Travelocity, or even Google’s own useful ITA Matrix Airfare Search looking for favorable pricing among airline carriers.  There’s also no shortage of apps that compare prices at my local supermarkets or tell me which gas station is the best bargain.

Is Uber right in prohibiting its API (and data accessed therefrom) from being used in a competitive manner? Should developers be allowed to access all of the data but only some of the time?

Clearly, there are legal and social issues involved. Uber certainly owns its own data and has every right to restrict its usage. Yet, this is a public API. Uber is not a federally regulated industry like air travel. And while Expedia, Travelocity, and dozens of other similar services are used for actually booking transportation and purchasing tickets, that’s not the case with urbanhail. The urbanhail app is merely informational.

So, what can’t you do with the Uber API? Let’s hail a ride to the Uber developer portal and find out! You cannot “compete with Uber.” You can’t “aggregate Uber with competitors.” Nor can you “store or aggregate Uber’s data, except as expressly permitted by Uber.” There’s also “You may not use the Uber API, Uber API Materials, or Uber Data in any manner that is competitive to Uber or the Uber Services, including, without limitation, in connection with any application, website or other product or service that also includes, features, endorses, or otherwise supports in any way a third party that provides services competitive to Uber’s products and services, as determined in our sole discretion.”

What’s your experience in using an API whose usage terms seem one-sided? Did you ever choose not to use a particular API because you couldn’t live within its terms? Perhaps your company publishes an API for use by others. Are its usage terms helping to broaden its use, or to restrict it? Share your thoughts; we’d like to hear from you.