AOL Cracks Down On A Startup For Downloading ‘CrunchBase’ Data

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Last week, AOL lawyers sent a cease-and-desist letter to three-person startup Pro Populi. They were not pleased that Pro Populi had downloaded the entire CrunchBase database.

In return, this morning CrunchBase found themselves in the spotlight when Wired published a story about their legal dispute with a startup called Pro Populi over its app People+.

Pro Populi makes an app for smartphones and Google Glass called “People+.” The company says it’s like a dictionary of people and companies in the tech and startup scenes. That’s essentially what CrunchBase is, but it’s accessed on the Web, not a mobile app.

“The dispute centers on whether People+ has the right to use the entire CrunchBase dataset to build a new product directly competitive with CrunchBase,” CrunchBase president Matt Kaufman says in a blog statement.

Rather than immediately bending to AOL’s will, Pro Populi asked the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EEF), the watchdog for Internet freedom to help defend the company, which it did.

EEF argues that the Creative Commons license gives Pro Populi the right to download the whole database and use it how it wishes.

CrunchBase is freely available under the Creative Commons CC-BY attribution license. This license allows any use of the database, commercial or non-commercial, provided the owner is credited.

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AOL isn’t directly disputing that. Instead it’s arguing that the startup broke the rules in how it downloaded the database. It used software from CrunchBase called an application programming interface, or (API). AOL has conditions on the API that says it can’t be used to  create a CrunchBase competitor.

The EFF argues that CrunchBase does have the right to control the use of its API, but it doesn’t have the right to ask Pro Populi to delete the data already in its app, because that data was released under a Creative Commons Attributions License:

When contacted for comment, Crunchbase had this to say about EFF: “We have a great deal of respect for the EFF, and we are meeting with Mr. Stoltz to discuss EFF’s arguments on behalf of People+. We would like to bring this issue to a quick and fair resolution, and we expect to learn a few things along the way about Creative Commons’ best practices and crowd-sourced data platforms.”

As of now Crunchbase has not changed its position on who can use its data.

Kaufman has noted that there are a number of third-party apps that are basically mobile repackaging of CrunchBase data, such as Technopedia and CrunchMap. The difference here, he said, is that People+ isn’t just trying to provide a window onto CrunchBase data, but also collecting crowdsourced data of its own. In other words, it’s not trying to extend CrunchBase or use the data in interesting ways, but instead to build a direct competitor.

He argues that CrunchBase’s value lies in the fact that it’s “definitive,” so it’s also harmful for users if “we were to support or encourage a lot of CrunchBase replicas.”

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