Nationalization or Expropriation? Independent Facebook Application Developers Continue to Face Uncertainty

There is some interesting discussion going on in the Facebook Developer’s forum. The gist is that Facebook has made changes that are causing some developers to feel disenfranchised. A few developers are upset enough that they are speaking of creating a union of independent Facebook application developers.

What might the goals of a union of Facebook application developers be? It would help to look at what has stirred the pot recently. About two weeks ago someone posted a complaint that Facebook had unfairly bent the rules to give CBS’s Sports NCAA bracket application advantages for faster viral spread across the Facebook user base. Adding insult to injury, the thread also pointed out that the CBS Sports NCAA bracket application had a poor user rating.

Two days ago another developer posted a thread titled, “Facebook has stolen my idea!” which describes the recently added “Do you know these people?” page on Facebook. The developer suggests he feels “cheated” because the new Facebook page duplicates his own application’s functionality. The developer’s application was forced to comply with platform development rules that required an obstructive approval process in order work correctly.

Facebook’s “Do you know these people?” page circumvents this approval process because it is not subject to the rules independent application developers must follow. Facebook made a better version of the application a part of the Facebook experience by bending the rules that crippled the original developer’s work.

These examples illustrate that Facebook considers it a duty to nationalize or expropriate functionality if it is considered good for Facebook. Rather than something that needs to be declared, Facebook makes this right clear in the Facebook Developers Terms of Service:

“…You hereby grant us a worldwide, perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive right and license, with the right to sublicense, to: (a) access, reproduce, display, distribute, perform, and store on our servers your Facebook Platform Application and any Facebook Platform Application Content, and to create derivative works of Facebook Platform Application Content, as may be necessary or desirable to make such Facebook Platform Application and Facebook Platform Application Content available to Facebook Users in accordance with the terms of this Agreement and the Facebook Platform Documentation and the Facebook Platform Application Guidelines; and (b) otherwise access, use and analyze any Facebook Platform Application Content for our internal business purposes (e.g., for the purposes of targeting delivery of advertisements or other content to persons who have viewed particular types of Facebook Platform Application Content).”

This paragraph basically says that Facebook can duplicate and meet parity or run with your application’s functionality and then integrate it into the basic Facebook experience. The second part basically says that Facebook reserves the right to monitor how much your application would be worth if Facebook were to take your idea.

I think a lot of independent developers get to sleep at night with the belief that Facebook wouldn’t expropriate their applications. These developers comfort themselves with the idea that “it happens occasionally–but only to applications with functionality that obviously belongs in the platform.”

The board of directors for the copper companies were probably counting the same sheep prior to the sweeping expropriation of copper mines by the Chilean government in the early 1970s. The result of that disagreement was that the United States pushed for and succeeded achieving economic sanctions against Chile. But the Facebook development community doesn’t exactly have sanctions on its list of tools of influence. What does it have?

For one, it would have to be part of a greater independent community of developers for all open social platforms. Only by having a union of developers that canvas’s all major platforms could it hold sway against any particular one. Such an organized group might hold sway by steering technical offerings, such as beginner guides, away from platforms that have a history of expropriating applications functionality unfairly. A strong independent application developer union might also be able dissuade or at least condemn social platforms that repeatedly expropriate functionality.

Representation at the table would help, when the biggest social networking application companies, RockYou!, are getting all of the attention. RockYou! has funding from Sequoia Capital, a company that wouldn’t take wholesale expropriation of their software lightly.


  1. This is why people must learn to read the Terms of Service legalese (or legal-unease, as it were). It is so easy for lawyers to slip this kind of rights-stripping language in and no one’s the wiser until a company takes advantage of its users’ work. We can’t assume that a company won’t take advantage of us when its TOS explicitly state that we’re giving them every right to do so.

    Nice post, Rob.

  2. This is a serious breach of ethics, Face book, being a large site can take recognition of a piece of software and work that someone else has done. This is seriously wrong. Lets ‘face’ it no-one reads the fine print and this is where people get caught out.
    We all have “intellectual property” and you must think that if they are to take it, certainly they have to source the person for creating that idea or program.

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