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Liability risks when deploying APIs: What you need to know

This post is also available in: Deutsch


In my daily work, I experience how APIs, also known as Application Programming Interfaces, are much more than just technical tools. They are at the heart of modern software and services and enable the networking of a wide variety of systems. Whether in e-commerce, social media or healthcare, I encounter APIs everywhere as key components of digital transformation.

But as this technology becomes more widespread and complex, so do the legal challenges. Data security issues and liability risks are becoming more and more relevant, both for me as a provider and for my customers who use APIs. Therefore, it is essential for me to deal intensively with these legal aspects.

In this article, I want to paint a comprehensive picture of APIs: What they are, how they work and in which contexts they are used. It is particularly important for me to shed light on the potential liability risks that may be associated with the use of APIs. I will also present practical tips and strategies on how to minimize these risks through targeted compliance measures and carefully worded general terms and conditions (GTC).

This post is intended for anyone who, like me, deploys or uses APIs. I will highlight various aspects of API liability from my experience and provide specific recommendations to avoid legal pitfalls and protect yourself in the best possible way.

What is an API?

An API, or Application Programming Interface, is a collection of protocols and tools that allow different software applications to communicate with each other. It is the link that facilitates the integration of different systems and services. APIs are ubiquitous in modern software development and form the foundation for a wide range of applications, from mobile apps to complex cloud solutions. They are the invisible scaffolding that holds the digital world together. Without APIs, today’s networking of services and applications would be unthinkable.

APIs are used in numerous industries and use cases. They are at the heart of e-commerce platforms, which use them to integrate payment gateways, shipping service providers or product catalogs. Social media platforms also offer APIs to allow third-party providers to access their services. In Industry 4.0, APIs enable communication between machines and control systems. They are also essential in healthcare, where they enable the exchange of patient data between different systems. In short, APIs are the lubricant of digital transformation.

Possible scenarios of liability

Deploying an API is not without risks, and those risks can vary depending on the context. As a SaaS provider that provides an API, I have a special responsibility. For example, if my API is integrated into a larger software solution and a data leak occurs there, I could be held liable for the resulting damage. The contracts with my customers must therefore clearly define what security measures I take and where my liability ends.

Another problem arises when the API code I provide itself contains a security vulnerability. In such cases, I could be held liable not only for the direct damage, but also for consequential damage caused by the misuse of the vulnerability. This could range from data theft to fraud. Therefore, it is crucial to regularly check the code for security vulnerabilities and provide updates.

The liability issue becomes even more complicated when I offer API code as Free Software. In this case, it could be argued that the users themselves are responsible for the security of the code, since they do not make a financial contribution for its use. However, I could still be held liable for gross negligence in certain jurisdictions, especially if it is known that the API is used for critical applications such as medical services or financial transactions.

In addition, the unavailability of a critical API, such as in healthcare or financial industry systems, can have a significant impact. In the worst case, failures could even cost lives or destabilize financial markets. It is therefore important to know exactly what the liability risks are and to take appropriate measures such as redundant systems or emergency plans.

Third party liability

Another risk that should not be neglected is that third parties using the API could make mistakes themselves or use the API for unauthorized purposes. In such cases, attempts could be made to hold the API provider liable, even if the API provider is not directly responsible for the misconduct. This presents a particular challenge because the provider does not have control over the actions of API users.

Therefore, it is essential to formulate clear usage guidelines and disclaimers. These should be written into the contracts with API users to have a clear basis in the event of a dispute. But what about when the API is provided in different forms?

If the API is only provided as a code snippet, it could be argued that users themselves are responsible for integration and security. In this case, it would be advisable to explicitly state in the terms of use that the provider cannot be held liable for errors or security vulnerabilities in the context of the respective application.

In the case of a subscription or software that integrates the API, the liability issue becomes more complex. In the case of a contract for work, in which the complete fulfillment of a specific goal is agreed upon, the provider could be held more liable if the API does not work as promised. In a license agreement, on the other hand, where users are only granted the right to use the API, liability could be more limited, especially if disclaimers and usage guidelines are clearly formulated.

It is therefore crucial to clearly define the specific conditions and expectations in advance. This is the only way the provider can effectively protect itself from unexpected liability claims. It is also advisable to perform regular security checks and proactively inform users about updates and changes to the API.

Minimizing liability through compliance measures

To minimize liability risks, API providers should take various compliance measures. First and foremost are strict security protocols that ensure the API is protected from unauthorized access and misuse. These protocols should include both technical and organizational measures, such as encryption of data and two-factor authentication for access to the API.

Regular audits are another important component of compliance. Through these reviews, the provider can ensure that all security measures are up to date and working effectively. It also enables early detection of potential vulnerabilities, which can then be addressed immediately.

Monitoring API usage should also not be neglected. Continuous monitoring allows unusual activity to be quickly detected and appropriate action taken. This is especially important to prevent misuse of the API and to ensure data integrity.

Another important aspect is clear contracts with API users. These contracts should address all liability issues and specify exactly what the responsibilities of the provider and the users are. This creates a clear legal basis and minimizes the risk of misunderstandings and legal disputes.

It is also advisable to conduct a regular review and update of compliance measures. The legal and technical landscape is constantly changing, and it’s important to stay current. This enables the provider to proactively respond to new challenges and adapt the compliance strategy accordingly.

Through proactive compliance, many risks can be avoided in advance. This protects not only the provider, but also the users of the API, and helps to strengthen trust in the digital infrastructure as a whole.

Importance of T&C for APIs

The General Terms and Conditions (GTC) are a crucial tool to regulate liability when providing APIs. They form the legal basis for the relationship between the API provider and the users and should therefore be formulated with the utmost care. The TOS should specify exactly how the API may be used. This includes both technical and behavioral policies, such as the types of requests allowed or the use of data obtained through the API.

Another important point that should be regulated in the GTC is the exclusion of certain types of liability. Here it is possible to specify in which cases the provider is not liable for damages caused by the use of the API. This could include, for example, the exclusion of liability for indirect damage or for damage caused by force majeure.

It is also advisable to specify in the GTC how to proceed in the event of a dispute. This may include the choice of competent jurisdiction and applicable law. By clarifying these issues up front, both parties can save time and resources should litigation actually occur.

A carefully formulated GTC text can eliminate many risks in advance. It creates clarity about the rights and obligations of both parties and thus minimizes the risk of misunderstandings and resulting legal disputes. Therefore, it is important to regularly review and update the GTC. The legal framework as well as the technical possibilities are constantly changing, and the GTCs should reflect these developments.

Another aspect that should be considered in the T&Cs is the question of under what circumstances API access may be terminated without the provider being in breach of contract. Here, it should be clearly defined which violations of the usage guidelines or other contractual components justify such termination. This could range from repeated data security breaches to unfair competition. By clearly regulating these conditions in the TOS, the provider can protect itself from legal consequences while maintaining the integrity of the API and related services.


APIs are an indispensable part of the digital infrastructure, but they also bring with them a number of liability risks. However, careful planning, clear contracts and proactive compliance measures can minimize these risks. This article has highlighted the various aspects of liability when providing APIs and ways to legally protect yourself as a provider or user. It is always better to be prepared than to face legal consequences after the fact.

Marian Härtel

Marian Härtel

Marian Härtel is a lawyer and entrepreneur specializing in copyright law, competition law and IT/IP law, with a focus on games, esports, media and blockchain.


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