Are Unofficial APIs Illegal


Are Unofficial APIs Illegal
Are Unofficial APIs Illegal

Today I want to cover a very controversial topic. I think everyone has hit a moment in life as a programmer that they wished some cool service had an API exposed so you can use it even at some cost!

In fact most if a lot have researched online ways to access web based data via some hidden API or even automate the browser to perform the requests on your behalf. What most people do not think about though is the legality of the subject. So today I’m going to break down for you referencing the legality of it. Do note most of this is for US law as this is what I know off in my experience in the software industry. This will most certainly not apply anywhere else so please do not use it as a reference for other countries.

Towards the end of this article I’m referencing an international accepted reference so this may apply to you but also to Americans.

Legality of Accessing API’s and The Law

The legality of using unofficial APIs is a complex issue, as it often depends on various factors and circumstances. While there is no specific law that explicitly declares the use of unofficial APIs as illegal, some legal considerations come into play. I’m going to cover a list below of some specific cases of where this may be applicable.

1. Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) – 18 U.S.C. § 1030

• The CFAA criminalizes unauthorized access to protected computers.
• Unauthorized API usage could potentially violate the CFAA if it constitutes unauthorized access or exceeds authorized access to a computer system.
• An entity providing an unofficial API might be held liable if they enable users to circumvent the API’s intended restrictions or facilitate unauthorized access to data.
• Prosecutions under the CFAA have included hacking, misuse of login credentials, and denial-of-service attacks, which may not exactly resemble using an unofficial API.
• A key factor in determining liability under the CFAA would be whether the individual accessing the unofficial API knowingly and intentionally took action beyond their allowed permissions.

As you can see above this one is very situational and may depend on what you are doing.

2. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) – 17 U.S.C. § 1201

• DMCA criminalizes the circumvention of digital rights management schemes.
• Unofficial APIs might facilitate access to copyrighted materials without appropriate licensing or permission, which could lead to potential DMCA violations.
• The use of an unofficial API to bypass digital rights management mechanisms might result in liability under the DMCA’s anti-circumvention provisions.
• The DMCA also contains safe harbor provisions for certain types of service providers, but these wouldn’t necessarily apply to individuals using unofficial APIs.
• To establish a DMCA violation, it would need to be shown that the defendant had knowledge of and willingly participated in the circumvention of copyright protection.

DMCA was popularly used initially for torrents and basically in the media industry however it also applies a lot on web based APIs as you can see above and you need to be very careful to avoid violating it.

3. Contract Law

• Many websites and platforms providing APIs have Terms of Service (ToS) or End User License Agreements (EULA) that users must agree to.
• Using an unofficial API potentially breaches these contracts, leading to legal disputes or account terminations.
• Contractual remedies may be pursued by the platform provider against those violating their ToS by using unofficial APIs.
• Depending on the scope and jurisdiction of the contract, users might face legal ramifications beyond mere termination of service.
• Enforcement of contractual obligations will depend on the individual circumstances and how effectively the use of the unofficial API breaches the terms.

This is a pretty straight forward one and what most people are familiar with in the business world. If something has a terms of service and you accept it or even if it’s just published on a site you use you have to go by their rules. If you play fair you should be in a safe territory.

4. Copyright Law – 17 U.S.C. § 101

• An unofficial API may involve copying or distributing copyrighted content, infringing upon the original creator’s rights.
• Copyright infringement can lead to significant legal penalties, including statutory damages, injunctive relief, and court costs, among others.
• If an unofficial API reproduces, distributes, or publicly displays copyrighted material without authorization or a valid fair-use claim, it could result in infringement liability.
• A fair-use defense depends on the nature, purpose, substantiality, and potential market harm caused by the unauthorized use.
• It is essential for individuals using unofficial APIs to consider whether they are inadvertently facilitating or participating in intellectual property violations.

Most software developers should be familiar with copyright licensing and how they work. If you are not, you are most likely not a corporate employee which may not really apply to you unless you decide to use something commercially and profit out of it without giving credit where it’s due.

5. Trademark Law – 15 U.S.C. § 1051

• Unofficial APIs may contain or facilitate access to trademarked content, risking potential infringement or dilution claims.
• Unauthorized use of another party’s trademark in a manner causing consumer confusion or diluting the brand’s distinctiveness may lead to legal liability.
• Remedies for trademark infringement can include injunctions, monetary damages, disgorgement of profits, and attorney’s fees.
• Courts apply various factors such as similarity of marks, relatedness of goods/services, and actual consumer confusion to determine trademark infringement.
• Due diligence should be exercised when using unofficial APIs to avoid potential trademark disputes.

Trademarks don’t really apply much to the website itself but rather it’s assets which are also are at stake. Now you’d say how would that carry over to running through an API service? Well if that has any trademarked assets in their results such as pictorial and other stuff then you may be in trouble otherwise you are in the clear.

6. Trade Secrets Law – 18 U.S.C. § 1839

• Unofficial APIs might provide access to proprietary information or trade secrets, which would expose the user to legal liability if such assets are misappropriated.
• Trade secret misappropriation can result in damages, injunctive relief, and potentially criminal penalties under state and federal laws.
• Users of unofficial APIs must consider whether they’re accessing legally protected trade secrets without authorization, inadvertently or otherwise.
• Examples of trade secrets include formulas, patterns, programs, devices, and compilations that derive independent economic value from not being public knowledge.
• Companies have a legitimate interest in protecting their trade secrets, so unlawful access or usage via unofficial APIs should be carefully considered and avoided.

Again one of the most fundamentals in any business or private agreement is the trade secret law the company possess. In fact most american companies operate under trade secrets these days. Very few go out there and try to get a patent on stuff but do not assume otherwise if not told. There’s a lot of good examples of people using private web service APIs based on trade secrets that weren’t supposed to be exposed and got into trouble so please be careful with this one.

7. Privacy Laws – 15 U.S.C. § 45

• Unofficial APIs might facilitate unauthorized access to individuals’ personal information, putting users at risk of violating privacy laws and regulations like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), or the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
• Penalties for violations of privacy laws vary and can include fines, legal actions, and reputational harm.
• Users should ensure any data accessed via unofficial APIs complies with relevant privacy laws and individuals’ consent.
• Unauthorized access to sensitive personal information brings ethical considerations along with legal risks.
• Applicable laws depend on the specific context and jurisdictions involved with the data accessed through an unofficial API.

This is a controversial one basically if you are accessing an API service that could potential expose personally identifiable information of people and you use that data for whatever reason then you are in a huge violation of the law. I repeat this might be one of the biggest offenders and you may even be prosecuted criminally for it if the data gets exposed. As a word of precaution steer away from any API service deals with people’s data particularly medical.

8. Tort Law

• Torts such as trespass to chattels, conversion, and invasion of privacy could potentially arise from the misuse of unofficial APIs.
• The extent of liability depends on the nature of the unauthorized access, damage caused, and the degree of intrusion into another’s property or privacy.
• Legal remedies for tortious actions can include injunctive relief, damages, and other equitable remedies, depending on the circumstances.
• Intentional acts that harm or interfere with another person’s rights or property may increase legal liabilities for users of unofficial APIs.
• Considering potential tort actions should be a part of any risk assessment when using unofficial APIs.

If the API you are using may be causing damage to someone else it should go without saying that it’s super illegal to use it and yes you will be prosecuted for this kind of thing if caught. Common sense is your best guard here and if you are in doubt just dont do it!

9. Antitrust Law – 15 U.S.C. § 1

• Unofficial API use could potentially raise antitrust concerns if the activity results in unlawful agreements or conspiracies that restrain trade or monopolize markets.
• While unlikely to directly implicate individuals, knowledge of collusion facilitated through unofficial APIs might be an issue in certain cases.
• The Sherman Act, Clayton Act, and Federal Trade Commission Act serve as the primary sources of antitrust legislation in the U.S.
• Antitrust liability typically requires proof of bad faith and anti-competitive impact rather than passive conduct, so mere usage of unofficial APIs is less likely to trigger such legal concerns.
• Understanding the relationship between unofficial API usage and associated business practices or collaborations can help identify any potential antitrust risks.

Pretty sure everyone is familiar with the antitrust law as it has gained a lot of publicity in the US the last few years. I think the bullet points above are self explanatory just do not mess with APIs that could potentially cause an antitrust issue as you are putting yourself at risk along with the company that may have accidentally exposed it.

10. International Laws and Treaties

• Activities involving unofficial APIs may cross international borders, invoking legal complexities due to different jurisdictions and applicable laws.
• International treaties addressing intellectual property rights, privacy, and cybercrime will play a role in determining legality in transnational situations.
• Violating domestic laws of another country through the use of an unofficial API may lead to complex legal disputes and increased legal penalties.
• Taking into account jurisdiction-specific regulations, including data protection rules and copyright exceptions or limitations, is essential to understanding potential risks.
• Navigating disparate international legal systems and ensuring compliance across various nations requires careful planning and due diligence when engaging with unofficial APIs.

In conclusion, while no specific law directly renders unofficial API usage as illegal, it remains important to consider the broader legal landscape and potential implications on an individual basis. Users should be cautious and take into account factors such as intellectual property rights, contractual obligations, and privacy concerns when utilizing unofficial APIs.

While these are vague and to what extent they may be prosecuted there’s some cases where you need to be careful. Off course I’m referring to third party actors here if you believe the API accidentally leaks data that spans across the borders and messes with someone else simply stay away from it. Not only are you putting your country at risk but also yourself.


In closing I think in most cases common sense is your best judge if you don’t want to deep dive in every legal system. As a safety net I always tell people if you are not sure about something do not use it. If you are still uncertain and want to do it, then get legal advice from a professional that specializes in IP and trade secret laws.

As a final note I’d like to say that there are a lot of cases of where the law is in a very gray zone and there’s a lot of if’s and but’s when it comes to software and particularly APIs. If it’s not clear cut and you want to risk something then I’d recommend you not doing so to keep your sanity and avoid any charges against you.



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