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Tragedy of the Creative Commons: AOL Takes on Startup People+

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By William Peacock, Esq. on November 05, 2013 10:59 AM

I just created something incredibly useful. I want to share that with the world, and to allow the world to develop that idea into its full potential. Then again, I also want credit.

That's why we have the Creative Commons Attribution [CC BY] license. It allows me to protect my IP in the least restrictive way imaginable: anyone, anywhere, can use my creation for pretty much any purpose, so long as they provide attribution.

Great compromise, right? So why is AOL in a tizzy over startup People+ using their Creative Commons'd CrunchBase database?

What is People+

A video does the app far more justice than words alone:

So creepy. So good. But that's not quite the point, is it? Pro Populi's People+ app is using AOL's data to populate their app. They (theoretically) have the right to do so under the CC license.

Why U Mad AOL?

AOL Assistant General Counsel Jeff Grossman sent this kind request demand to Pro Populi last week, per Wired:

"On the chance that you may have misinterpreted Matt's willingness to discuss the matter with you last week, and our reference to this as a 'request,' let me make clear, in more formal language, that we demand that People+ immediately cease and desist from its current violation and infringement of AOL's/TechCrunch's proprietary rights and other rights to CrunchBase, by removing the CrunchBase content from your People+ product and by ceasing any other use of CrunchBase-provided content."

But, isn't the content CC'd? Besides the issue of not seeing any attributions on that video demo (an issue not raised in the rage/demand), Grossman is demanding that the company drop the data because they have completely repurposed it for their own new database, a competitor to the original.

In other words, AOL's CC'd generosity just bit them in the backside.

Does AOL Have a (Legal) Point?

AOL's point, according to Wired, is that the data was (and is) pulled through the company's CrunchBase API. An API is basically a public software data pipeline. Third-parties can build apps that constantly tap the pipeline for the data. It's easier than duplicating the database each time, or building a unique pipeline for each party. Think about all of those third-party Twitter apps: they all use the same API to access the company's data.

The Terms of Service for AOL's CrunchBase pipleline state that the company can review all uses of the API, including those that "appear more competitive than complementary in nature," and can "suspend or discontinue the CrunchBase API and/or suspend or terminate your rights .... to access, use and/or display the CrunchBase API, Brand Features and any CrunchBase content."

That last mention of "CrunchBase content" seems to conflict with the CC license, but even assuming the CC license trumps that passing mention of content, AOL might have a half-point with the API, which has its own TOS. It seems to have the right to shut off the pipeline, but it may not have the right to require People+ to pull the data that it has already acquired.

That's the Electronic Frontier Foundation's stance, at least. According to Wired, the noble organization has taken up the cause and represents People+ in the dispute.

What do you think? Does AOL have a point in this Tragedy of the Creative Commons scenario? Join the discussion on Facebook at FindLaw for Legal Professionals.

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