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When I was building Terminology, my dictionary/thesaurus app for iOS, one of my goals was for it not to have dead ends. If what you searched for wasn’t in the dictionary, I provided links to external resources that might have more information. In the next major version of Terminology, I plan to make those external links configurable, but for expediency I selected a few fixed resources to start.  One of those was Wolfram Alpha

I did make a brief review of their Terms of Service — but, I didn’t dig deep. All I was doing was linking to their site with a query already populated. Most sites love it when you do that. Terminology has an in-app browser, but I did nothing other than open a link. No API usage, no scraping/data altering of any sort.  The link to “Wolfram Alpha” did appear in a couple of screenshots in the iTunes store, but it was not highlighted and not used as a “selling point” of the app.

Then, out of the blue, I received a politely worded email from Wolfram, stating that Terminology was in violation of their Terms of Service. “Specifically, your iPhone/iPad App, Terminology is using Wolfram Alpha to power its functionality, which is not an allowed use of our service,” were the exact words.  Further, “we have notified Apple requesting that they remove your App unless and until it is modified to be in conformity with our terms.  We hope to be able to work with you to legitimize your product/service so that we can both arrive at a favorable solution as soon as possible.”

Later that day, I received notification of the complaint from Apple, including the complaint from Wolfram which contained a bunch of DMCA legalese.  Apple’s complaint indicated, “In particular, Wolfram Alpha believes you are infringing their copyright.” Thankfully, Apple did not knee-jerk and actually remove my app from the store.

OK, so I’m either violating their ToS, or infringing on their copyrights. Clear as mud. I politely reply to Wolfram, asking for more details on what I’m violating.  I also prepare and submit new builds to Apple that do not contain Wolfram links.  I’m not that attached to them.  Interestingly, I’ve gotten more feedback about that link from people who had never heard of Wolfram Alpha before Terminology and now use it — but, their loss, right?

I also proceeded to spend some quality time with Wolfram’s ToS and find that Terminology is in violation.  Specifically:

The Wolfram Alpha service may be used only by a human being using a conventional web browser to manually enter queries one at a time.
It is not permitted to use Wolfram Alpha indirectly through another website that has created a large number of deep links to Wolfram Alpha, or that automatically constructs links based on input that you give on that site, rather than on Wolfram Alpha. You may not in effect use Wolfram Alpha through an alternate user interface presented by another website.

So, I goofed. This is something they could enforce with a technical solution, if they really felt that strongly about it, but instead are choosing to enforce via legal channels. About a week after I requested information from Wolfram, I did get email back explaining the Terms and directing me to essentially the passages quoted above.

In Wolfram’s defense, it’s totally within their rights to have these policies. Also, I imagine they have run into some apps that are scraping their results or other things that get around their API charges and they have a right to seek to put a stop to such behavior.

I was left with a really bad taste in my mouth, however, because I would happily have complied with their requests without having to be strong armed and have a take down notice filed with Apple.  I mean, they have to be aware that this sort of policy is totally at odds with the way people expect to utilize the web, right?

UPDATE: Wolfram listens and changes policy