In Legal Dispute With People+, CrunchBase Admits It May Need To Learn More About Creative Commons

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Our colleagues at CrunchBase found themselves in the spotlight this morning when Wired published a story about their legal dispute with a startup called Pro Populi over its app People+. Now the CrunchBase team has responded in a post of its own, making the case for why it was going after People+ and also acknowledging that it may have more to learn about how it can and can’t control CrunchBase content.

(This situation is obviously fraught with conflicts of interest for TechCrunch, since we’re part of the same team at AOL, but my aim is to cover this as best as I can like any other news story.)

The problem, it seems, is that People+ (described as “LinkedIn meets Wikipedia“) was using CrunchBase to build its own crowdsourced database of information about people and companies. Apparently CrunchBase President Matt Kaufman asked Pro Populi to stop using CrunchBase data, and the AOL legal team sent a letter making the same point more forcefully.

However, a reply from the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Mitchell Stoltz suggests that AOL and CrunchBase may be legally in the wrong. Basically, 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:

Contrary to the assertions in your letters, People+ has not infringed on any right of CrunchBase/AOL’s. People+ does not dispute CrunchBase’s right to determine who may use the CrunchBase API, and People+ has ceased to use the API. However, People+ has the right to continue using the material that People+ has gathered to date.

I tried to get in touch with the EFF, but a spokesperson said that since the organization is representing People+, it can’t comment on the case. I also emailed People+ but haven’t heard back.

Judging from the CrunchBase post, it does sound like the team is trying to resolve the situation and isn’t denying that it may have overreached:

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.

When I asked Kaufman if CrunchBase’s position on who can use its data has changed, he denied it: “I think we’ve always believed — perhaps incorrectly, per the EFF — that we have the right to ask people not to use our data. Our licensing has always been very liberal.”

He 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.

Is People+ really just a CrunchBase copycat? I haven’t used the app enough to say for certain, but I will note that when I first opened it, the intro pages pointed me to the profiles for startup HotelTonight and its CEO Sam Shank. As far as I could tell, the data on those pages (you can see the main page of the HotelTonight profile above) all came from CrunchBase, though you have to swipe left on individual items to see attribution — which makes it, um, interesting that CrunchBase was never mentioned in the People+ pitch.

Beyond the legal questions, there’s also the issue of whether CrunchBase and TechCrunch really want to get into legal disputes with startups. When I suggested that this is pretty awkward, Kaufman replied, “Perhaps that’s how other people view the situation.” He argued, however, 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.”