Best quote from Mashup Camp

That’s the thing about mashups, almost all of them are illegal

I heard that (and unfortunately am unable to credit the source) in the “scrAPI” session at Mashup Camp, in which we discussed the delicate nature of using a site that doesn’t have APIs as part of a mashup. Adrian Holovaty of (my favourite mashup at camp) was leading part of the session, demonstrating what he had done with Chicago police crime data (the police, not having been informed in advance, called him for a little chat the day his site went live), Google maps, Yahoo! maps (used for geocoding after he was banned from the Google server for violating the terms of service) and the Chicago Journal.

Listening to Adrian and others talk about the ways to use third-party sites without their knowledge or permission really made me realize that most mashup developers are still like a bunch of kids playing in a sandbox, not realizing that they might be about to set their own shirts on fire. That’s not a bad thing, just a comment on the maturity of mashups in general.

The scrAPI conversation — a word, by the way, that’s a mashup between screen scraping and API — is something very near and dear to my heart, although in another incarnation: screen scraping from third-party (or even internal) applications inside the enterprise in order to create the type of application integration that I’ve been involved in for many years. In both cases, you’re dealing with a third party who probably doesn’t know that you exist, and doesn’t care to provide an API for whatever reason. In both cases, that third party may change the screens on their whim without telling you in advance. The only advantage of doing this inside the enterprise is that the third party ususally doesn’t know what you’re doing, so if you are violating your terms of service, it’s your own dirty little secret. Of course, the disadvantage of doing this inside the enterprise is that you’re dealing with CICS screens or something equally unattractive, but the principles are the same: from a landing page, invoke a query or pass a command; navigate to subsequent pages as required; and extract data from the resultant pages.

There’s some interesting ways to make all of this happen in mashups, such as using LiveHTTPHeaders to watch the traffic on the site that you want to scrape, and faking out forms by passing parameters that are not in their usual selection lists (Adrian did this with to pass a much larger radius to the crime stats site that its form drop-down allowed in order to pull back the entire geographic area in one shot). Like many enterprise scraping applications, site scraping applications often cache some of the data in a local database for easier access or further enrichment, aggregation, analysis or joining with other data.

In both web and enterprise cases, there’s a better solution: build a layer around the non-API-enabled site/application, and provide an API to allow multiple applications to access the underlying application’s data without each of them having to do site/screen scraping. Inside the enterprise, this is done by wrapping web services around legacy systems, although much of this is not happening as fast as it should be. In the mashup world, Thor Muller (of Ruby Red Labs) talked about the equivalent notion of scraping a site and providing a set of methods for other developers to use, such as Ontok‘s Wikipedia API.

We talked about the legality of site scraping, namely that there are no explicit rights to use the data, and the definition of fair use may or may not apply; this is what prompted the comment with which I opened this post.

In the discussion of strategic issues around site scraping, I certainly agree that site scraping indicates a demand for an API, but I’m not sure that I completely agree with the comment that site scraping forces service and data providers to build/open APIs: sure, some of them are likely just unaware that their data has any potential value to others, but there’s going to be many more who either will be horrified that their data can be reused on another site without attribution, or just don’t get that this is a new and important way to do business.

In my opinion, we’re going to have to migrate towards a model of compensating the data/service provider for access to their content, whether it’s done through site scraping or an API, in order to gain some degree of control (or at least advance notice) of changes to the site that would break the callling/scraping applications. That compensation doesn’t necessarily have to mean money changing hands, but ultimately everyone is driven by what’s in it for them, and needs to see some form of reward.

Update: Changed “scrapePI” to “scrAPI” (thanks, Thor).

6 thoughts on “Best quote from Mashup Camp”

  1. Best Quote from this Mashup post “Mashup developers are still like a bunch of kids playing in a sandbox”. Very good post

  2. Thanks for commenting. Actually, I like the “not realizing that they might be about to set their own shirts on fire” part best — it’s all fun until somebody loses a lawsuit!

  3. Nice post Sandy.

    I really do believe scrAPIs can be a game-changer for information access. You’re absolutely right that companies whose lifeblood is selling information will sue anyone that threatens their income. But there are a lot of firms and organizations who use information as a platform for their business. It hasn’t crossed their minds that there would be a upside of freeing their data. Amazon and Yahoo have realized the benefits and are leading the way. For other such companies, scrAPIs can help lower the perceived cost of providing APIs and make the benefits more obvious.

    Here’s a few other angles:

    • Public domain information. The example shows how much more valuable information becomes when it’s freed from its silos. So much data is free to use…it just isn’t usually available in usable form. scrAPIs can work wonders here.
    • Proprietary “collections. Data-sets like white page listings, movie times, and tv guides are not copyrightable in their component parts, but the compilations are protected. Whatever the legality, these are already coming under intense pressure from scrapers. This may be seriously magnified by the availability of scrAPIs that pull from multiple sources, making them hard to go after legally.
  4. Thor, I agree completely on public domain information: I love what Adrian’s done with, and it would be difficult for the police to complain about this reuse of public information.

    I still think that having an explicit arrangement with a content provider is best, even in the case of scraping, if only to have some sort of leverage for advance notice of changes to the site that might break your scraping. I’ve been involved in enterprise (screen) scraping integrations where the IT group that controlled the legacy system intentionally changed the screens without notice in order to break our code, purely for the purposes of internal backstabbing: the external content provider who don’t want you scraping their sites will figure out that trick soon enough.

  5. Bob, thanks for the link to your article — some great thoughts on the legal issues to consider when creating mashups. There will be additional issues when mashups of publicly-available services start to be used within corporate environments, too.

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