Record Label Sues Developer for Using Open API

John Musser
Feb. 26 2009, 04:32AM EST

In what might be a first in the world of open APIs and mashups, a developer has been sued by a major corporation for developing an application using a third party web service API. As TechCrunch's Jason Kincaid reports, Ryan Sit, the talented developer behind a number of popular mashups is being sued by EMI for his application Favtape because it uses the Seeqpod API. Of course it's not unusual for a record label to aggressively use the courts to defend copyright, but this appears to take the battle to a new ground. As Jason describes:

It’s no secret that the record industry hates Seeqpod, a music site that lets users stream songs for free. Last year the company was sued by Warner Music Group (the outcome of the suit is still pending). Now, the company has just been slapped with a complaint from EMI.

The legality of Seeqpod is murky. The company says that it doesn’t store any songs, but instead streams them from countless music files littering sites across the web. In effect, it acts as a powerful music search engine with a media player built in. The record industry claims that this is still illegal, and the new EMI complaint goes as far as to say that Seeqpod actually does host some of these music files, at least temporarily (which would strike a major blow to Seeqpod’s defense if proven true).

What is surprising, and potentially very alarming, is the fact that Ryan Sit was named in the suit for running the one-man startup Favtape, which leverages the Seeqpod API to stream music.

The Favtape mashup itself lets you create playlists and stream them from Seeqpod. It does not host any songs itself, instead retrieves them from the API. The general consensus on Seeqpod and their API was that if the RIAA or another organization (like EMI) sued Seeqpod that the worst that would happen to any dependent mashup apps is that they'd no longer be able to get music from Seeqpod.

Favtape

Seeqpod is one of the music APIs that's had some good traction and as of now we have 16 Seeqpod mashups in our directory.

More good insights on this case come from Michael Robertson:

EMI's lawsuit against Ryan is the first example of an API user being sued for the actions of the host company. Dozens of web sites use Seeqpod's API including: Songerize, Songza, Streamzy, and JustHearIt but Favtape had the misfortune to be in the record labels crosshairs. If API users can be held liable it threatens how the internet works. The internet is well, inter-connected - not just user to user but service to service. If you can't connect there is no internet. Of course, it's not just music services that connect. Some of the most innovative developments are called mashups –when two services are combined together– like a crime database and a mapping service used to create the Sexual Offender locator.

Content owners should have right to control where their property is displayed on the net, but the right does not extend to holding liable anyone who links to that material. Targeting the originator is sufficient because if the source is removed all links or services depending on that will immediately become invalid. If Seeqpod is found by the courts to be a copyright infringement it will go away and immediately break all links to it. API usage, like Favtape does, is like a sophisticated form of linking or referencing which I believe is protected under the DMCA 512 safe harbor which makes it legal to link to material - even if it that material may be infringing.

And as Michael notes in his post, we have nearly 50 music-related APIs in our directory. It's not easy for a developer to evaluate the risk of using any one of them based upon the just how vulnerable each may be to a music industry lawsuit.

This case has the potential to be a stifling precedent. We will follow-up as there are more updates on this story to report.

John Musser

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