API Keys for Direct Competitors

In a FlickrCentral discussion thread about Picasa Web Album, Google’s new photo hosting service, Stewart Butterfield from Flickr says something very interesting about whether Flickr would, or should, give a direct competitor a Flickr API key for the purpose of moving a Flickr user’s data to that competitor’s service:

[T]his is something that we’ve never had any set policy on and this thread has sparked a lot of internal debate on the team: some people felt that it was unreasonable, some people felt like it didn’t matter since Flickr should win on the basis of being the best thing out there.

I actually had a change of heart and was convinced by Eric‘s position that we definitely should approve requests from direct competitors as long as they do the same. That means (a) that they need to have a full and complete API and (b) be willing to give us access.

The reasoning here is partly just that “fair’s fair’ and more subtly, like a GPL license, it enforces user freedom down the chain. I think we’ll take this approach (still discussing it internally).

I love this, and would love to see this idea discussed more and more broadly. The discussion seems to me to overlap directly with this (long but very worthwhile) exchange between Mark Pilgrim and John Gruber: When the bough breaks, And Oranges, and Juggling oranges. Mark and John are talking about desktop applications, and Stewart and his interlocutor, Thomas Hawk, are talking about web applications, but that’s where the differences end. In both conversations, they’re talking about freedom and ownership of data (a topic on which you should expect to see me write much more, very soon).

There are license lawyers who will jump all over this with a GPL derivative, and given the success of the GPL at promoting its core ideas, there is some place for that. But at start, the discussion of data freedom and ownership should continue. It’s important. Eric’s API Parity solution is a great one.