Mike Lee, a Mac developer and former iOS developer with major contributions to Tap Tap Revenge, Obama '08 and Apple's own retail application, has suggested a radical way to fight back against the patent firms targeting mobile application developers with claims of infringement. It's time for an API boycott, he says.
Lee calls the current patent trolling, where firms such as Lodsys and others are threatening to sue developers who don't license patents for technology developments like in-app purchasing buttons and the use of forms, an "untenable situation" for developers. "There is no move we can make that will result in our ultimate survival. Either we pay Lodsys and usher in a new era of extortion, or we refuse to pay and are sued out of business."
But there's a third option, he offers. Developers can put pressure on Apple by boycotting the use of any API that comes under fire from these patent holders.
What are the Patent Trolls Doing?
An API, or application programming interface, is a tool used by application developers to facilitate interactions between different software programs. For example, the case of the Lodsys patent claims, developers who have implemented Apple's in-app purchase API, which allows an app's users to pay for goods or services within the app itself, have been targeted for including an in-app "upgrade" button within their applications.
Although Apple has licensed Lodsys' patents, the firm claims that the license does not extend to the wider community of third-party application developers.
Also this week, a second patent-holding firm called MacroSolve has been outed as suing nearly a dozen developers on both Apple's and Google's Android mobile platforms for using forms within their apps.
For indie developers, the situation leaves them feeling helpless. As Lee explains, "if we pay, we are collaborators in our own demise, as the precedent this sets will open a floodgate of parasites extorting licensing fees for their alleged patents, knowing we are too weak and too scared to do anything but pay. If we dont pay, well still be out of business, just quicker, as we are sued out of existence."
Although Lee is not currently developing iOS applications, he now works for a company called Sofa, a maker of Mac apps. Sofa is not affected by this issue directly, but it is affected by the precedent being set, as are all developers, says Lee.
What Can Be Done?
Lee is suggesting a boycott of Apple's in-app API, as well as any other API "that is infected by parasites," as he describes it. He does not say this because he has no faith in Apple, but because Apple has "infinite time" to address the situation and are "typically conservative in their response." Lee thinks developers need to light a fire under Apple, to urge them to move quickly.
In a blog post, Lee details precisely how developers can participate in such a boycott. Within an application, a developer can add an alert which would appear anytime a user attempted to make an in-app purchase. The alert would read something like this:
We are unable to support in-app purchase at this time due to the threat of lawsuit.
In addition, Lee says developers can file a bug that duplicates bug #9459079, which reads:
Use of the system-provided In-App Purchase API opens developers to patent infringement lawsuits from patent troll Lodsys, who are demanding licensing fees above and beyond Apples 30% cut.
Steps to Reproduce:
1. Ship an app that uses the In-App Purchase API
2. Wait to be contacted by Lodsys
3a. Pay Lodsys, and every patent troll that inevitably follows them
3b. Be sued out of existence
Apple steps in using their nearly infinite financial and legal resources to protect their developer ecosystem, removing the threat of Lodsys, and ultimately pushing for reform of our broken patent system.
Apple remains quiet, while their developer community privately and publicly freaks out.
Dozens of developers, including James Thomson and Apple Design Award winner Iconfactory, have already been targeted by Lodsys.
Some reassurance from Apple would be nice.
Developer Response So Far
Such a radical and aggressive action may be feared by many iOS developers, who have typically been careful to not anger Apple in any way, and have tried to always follow the company's strict rules regarding application development practices.
Lee admits that, while overall, the response to his suggestion has been "overwhelming positive," there has also been some negative reactions, too.
"People are terrified," he explains. "Some people want to lawyer up, without thinking about how expensive that is. Others want to pretend it doesn't exist, or that it's not an issue. You can expect all the standard Kübler-Ross reactions: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance."
But Lee believes a boycott may be the only way for developers to really have an impact. Feature adoption and bug reports are metrics which Apple is known to value, he says.
A small handful of developers have agreed to participate in the boycott so far, and are tweeting their support using the new #unlodsys hashtag on Twitter. Lee suspects that many more will simply pull the API quietly or file bug reports.