Nov. 28 2017 - You can read Part II of this story here.
Nov. 21 2017 - Update
In the couple weeks that we were on-line, we were able to save customers more than 43,000 points and $550 dollars, and have made $45. Southwest Airlines has sent us a number of cease and desist letters demanding that we shut down our website "immediately." Because our $45 will not go very far in fighting litigation in federal court in Dallas, our lawyer has agreed that our best decision is to save ourselves the headache and shut down the service. Thank you all so much for all the support and encouragement over the last few weeks.
Chase & Pavel
Southwest Airlines is Intimidating our Startup.
Nov. 16 2017
A friend posed an interesting hypothetical to me once, "If libraries didn't exist? Would you be able to start one today?" I think we could safely answer "No", at least not without spending millions battling publishers in court. Such is the litigating society we live in, with companies big and small using the legal system to choke out the competition, or anyone else they may feel threatened by.
Several weeks ago Pavel and I started working on SWMonkey.com. The idea is super simple, when your Southwest Airlines' ticket price drops, we send you an email and you can rebook your ticket to save whatever the difference is. It took us longer than expected, but Pavel and I threw together a landing page with a form to capture email addresses and flight details and got it on line. At first, we didn't even have any code written to automatically check flights; Pavel was going to do it manually. We soon had a blog post from Deals We Like, an airline deals blog, to announce our launch. Our first day we had 40 flights submitted to be monitored! I'm used to launching a service or app and only getting two or three sign-ups on the first day, so this blew my expectations out of the water. I was excited and overwhelmed by the positive feedback from everyone. One of our first users sent me this email:
Finding ways to optimize your life by cutting out menial tasks is the core of innovation. And automating something so mundane as checking your flights is no different from using a washing machine to wash your clothes or a bread mixer to knead dough. The last few weeks I have been washing dishes by hand because my dishwasher has been broken. One night, as I was scrubbing away, the thought came to me, "This is ridiculous. Someone should invent a robot that does this for me." I quickly caught myself. "They already did. It's called a dishwasher..." When I finally fixed my dishwasher, I had a new appreciation for the robot that washes dishes on my behalf. And it may not take as long to check flights as it does to do dishes, but I was thrilled to see that we were providing a service that makes people's lives a little easier and a little better.
My excitement was about to run full speed into a cement wall. Two days later, we received a (form) email from email@example.com:Dear Website Owner:
It has come to Southwest's attention that you are using Southwest's proprietary and trademarked names and logos in connection with your business. This is misappropriation of Southwest's property, an infringement upon Southwest's proprietary rights, and is confusing and misleading to Southwest's customers.
Within seven (7) days of receipt of this letter, kindly confirm by written correspondence that you will immediately Cease and Desist, and will otherwise fully comply with the demands made herein...
SOUTHWEST AIRLINES CO.
Link to full email.
I opened up swmonkey.com and looked over our landing page. We do use an image of an airplane that said "southwest" on the side of it. We've since removed that image. Even so, Southwest didn't take the picture, it was a public domain image, licensed under creative commons. Also, let's be real for a moment. I refuse to believe that Southwest has done any sort of independent study proving that my use of that particular image, if that's even what they are talking about, "is confusing and misleading to Southwest's customers." Their letter is also remarkably unhelpful when it comes to resolving any issues. They never mention where or how I am infringing on their trademarks or IP. Obviously, this letter is an intimidation tactic. Their goal isn't to help me comply, it's to get us to take down SWMonkey.
I figure I have 7 days before I have to start thinking about this, and went back to work.
Two days later we have flight checking mostly automated. Pavel and I are feeling really optimistic about progress when we receive an email from James Sheppard:To Whom It May Concern:
I am an Attorney in the General Counsel Department at Southwest Airlines Co. ("Southwest"). It has come to our attention that you developed a website or application called "Southwest Monkey" that automates searches on Southwest.com. As you may know, the use of Southwest's services and websites is governed by the Terms and Conditions, which specifically prohibits the following activity:
· "You will not . . . use any deep-link, page-scrape, robot, crawl, index, spider, click spam, macro programs, Internet agent, or other automatic device, program, algorithm or methodology which does the same things, to use, access, copy, acquire information, generate impressions or clicks, input information, store information, search, generate searches, or monitor any portion of the Service or Company information."
To put it simply, you should stop. To put it in more legal terms, Southwest demands that you immediately cease and desist from (1) extracting or scraping Southwest's flight and fare information from its proprietary servers and websites; and (2) publishing this information on the Southwest Monkey website, through related web applications, or elsewhere.
There should also be no delay in your compliance with our demands in this letter. We would expect it done immediately - but no later than Wednesday, November 15, 2017.
Attorney - General Counsel Department
Link to full email.
I have to admit, this rattled my cage a little bit; which is the whole point, I guess. The problem I see with their argument is that they are making this information public. To restrict someone from accessing public information is a violation of our basic rights. Carl Wisoff, in a similar court case, addresses this same issue, "To choke off speech and the precursor of speech, the gathering of facts and the analysis of information, is a dangerous path down which we should not go.” If Southwest is going to make data public, then anyone should be able to access or monitor that data.
We aren't going to be intimidated by this. Everyone has a right to access public data. And we believe that whether you are accessing that data by typing in a URL in a web browser, through a CURL request, an RSS feed, a cached copy, or having someone read it to you aloud, does not change your right to access public data.
If Southwest Airlines' Tranfarency Campaign is about being open and honest with customers and helping them find the lowest fares, they will stop trying to squash startups that are trying to assist customers in this same effort. We will continue for the time being and expect that Southwest will focus on helping customers find the best fares available, and so will we.