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The Marvel API - a case study in how to not respect developers

Last week Marvel released an API giving developers access an impressive amount of data from the Marvel comics. 75 years worth of characters, storylines and events that are part of our modern mythology. It is a great marketing move for Marvel. I am sure it is going to result in lots of cool infographics as well as web and mobile apps which in turn help sell Marvels movies and comics.

The Terms of Use for the API are not as impressive though. If you as a developer invest hours of your time and creativity at no cost for Marvel you are not able to be rewarded in any way, except maybe some geek cred and lots of love on social networks. Let’s do what most developers won’t do and read through the terms…

Cash Moves Everything Around Me

"No Charge. All Apps must be offered free of charge to download or otherwise access and may not contain any in-App purchase features or any other method of monetization." as well as "you may not include any advertising or sponsorship in your App" (except if Marvel provides the ads that is).

So it is clear that you can not in any way make money on Marvels API.

The First Rule of Fight Club

"NO PRESS RELEASES. You may not issue any press release or make any public statement about the Marvel API (and related Content), Tools, the inclusion of any of the foregoing in any Apps (yours or others’) or these API Terms of Use without Marvel’s prior written approval.".

Right, no press release, not even about the Terms of Use. The first rule of Fight Club and the first rule of the Marvel API just happens to be the same…

We Reserve the Right To Sherlock

"You understand and acknowledge that Marvel may be independently creating applications, content and other products or services that may be similar to or competitive with your App, and nothing in these API Terms of Use will be construed as restricting or preventing Marvel from creating and fully exploiting such applications, content and other products or services now or in the future, without any obligation to you.".

When Apples gets heavily inspired by an independent developer it is called getting Sherlocked, when Twitter, Facebook or Marvel does it is is just called business.

So what?

Marvel has the right to do whatever they want with their data. If they want to release it with these Terms of Use they can and they have. In some of the examples above Marvel may even have to be strict against developers for some legal reasons (I am neither a lawyer or an expert in US trademark law). Since Marvel sits on such a treasure trove of data their API will be successful, if this I have no doubt. The Terms of Use will not stand in the way of that since most developers will not care or even read them.

I do however have two major problems with Marvels Terms of Use:

  • Marvel clearly does not value the work developers will invest into using their API and market Marvels products. Actions speak louder than words, so Marvel can make things better by rewarding successful Marvel API based apps with money, noteriety or something else. Good developers are a limited resource and should be treated as such.
  • It sets a dangerous precedent (even if Marvel is by no means the first to set this precedent) of developer unfriendly API terms. It works for the big guys with tights and capes or millions of users, but it DOES NOT work for anyone else in the long run. Unless you are Marvel or Facebook you need to be nicer to your users. As a developer I can just as well spend time with another API as with yours, so do not give me any reason to move on to a competitor.

Last year I worked with the Swedish API License which is an attempt in creating API terms that respect both the API publisher and the developer. If you are interested in getting good terms of use for your API I hope you take a look at that free license, for inspiration if nothing else.

Feb 3, 2014

by andreaskrohn

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