That Distant API Rumbling… Is a New Renaissance Afoot?

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In February, a funny thing happened.

Not only did EMI Music sue Seeqpod, they also sued Ryan Sit, just one of several developers using the Seeqpod API to create a variant app.  In a nutshell, Sit’s ‘Favtape’ was a software mash-up that combined elements of Seeqpod, Last.fm, and Pandora using available APIs.  Seeqpod was used for its decentralized, web-based music search, and Favtape outsourced the functionality.

Both Seeqpod and its downstream mash-up undoubtedly had solid legal counterarguments.  But the legal weaponry of EMI was enough to overwhelm the opponents: Seeqpod was plunged into bankruptcy, and Sit quickly backed off.  Months later, the smoke has mostly cleared, though the filing of multiple lawsuits offers a glimpse into just how potent API-based development has become.  Favtape appears to be the first downstream, API-based music application to get sued.

Of course, API (application programming interface) development is nothing new, and the API concept is quite broad.  At a top level, an API allows an outside developer to tap into an existing software architecture, and it defines interaction with the underlying operating system.  The iPhone SDK (software development kit) is a perfect example of the fertility that can arise.  And in the music world, the API’s decentralized, relatively open structure could fuel a renaissance of software creativity.

Just recently in London, a number of startups participated in ‘Music Hack Day,’ a 24-hour session of programming madness.  Participants included 7digital, BBC Music, the Echo Nest, Gigulate, Last.fm, Songkick, and SoundCloud, among others.  Everyone tossed their strategic APIs in the ring for a pizza-fueled app-off, signaling a serious spirit of innovation.  “European music sites are revolutionizing the music industry, not least with their eagerness to open up their data with APIs,” the group proclaimed on musichackday.org.

The event spun a significant number of API-based mash-ups, and each participating company picked their own winner.  For example, 7digital selected the romantic mash-up ‘LonelyHarps,’ an application that uses elements of Last.fm, 7digital, and Gigulate to create a music-based dating service.

Indeed, the love affair with mixing-and-matching API elements is just taking off, and rights holders – especially major labels – are probably unhappy about the trend.  The reason is that such decentralized creativity further blurs licensing lines, and encourages unaffiliated developers to tap into outside libraries.

Actually, the broader 2.0-style internet itself runs contrary to more traditional rights holder values.  Instead of distinct licensing arrangements between owner and service, concepts like APIs and widgets blur borders and erode the rigid structure of contracts.

Perhaps that is all part of a continued progression away from licensing control online.  Once upon a time, major media companies could block the release of certain technologies.  If the legal winds had blown differently, VCRs may have withered from store shelves.  But breakthroughs like Napster were just released, no permission needed.  And even after getting buried in court, Napster sprung a thousand imitations – a story everyone knows all too well.

But what happens when that process is supercharged?  When programming accomplishments and application breakthroughs are readily shared with interested parties?  The result is an explosion in development, based on a creative community that can be very difficult to control.  Indeed, Seeqpod only said goodbye after releasing its entire source code to the world, perhaps the most lasting middle finger a shuttered application can offer.