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Reading the fine print on what rights Google, Microsoft and Dropbox have on your files [EDITORIAL]

Yesterday Google launched its Drive cloud service allowing you to upload virtually anything and have it synced across multiple devices. Sounds great and bringing a bit more competition to the mix has never hurt anyone.

But what happens once you store there that music piece you’ve been working on for so long? Or the concept art for that cool project at work? Do you still remain its owner and what do you allow the cloud storage provider to do with it? Google, Microsoft and Dropbox have different approaches how they handle the legal part of things and it isn’t something to be taken lightly.

I know, the legal aspect here is as boring as waiting in line at the post office, but thankfully, you’re in luck, because I am going to make it short and clear for you. Here’s my scoop on the Google Drive, Dropbox and SkyDrive’s Terms of Service and the parts that specify what rights you allow the services on your precious files.

And before we continue, here’s a nice little disclaimer. I have no law education and this is just my take as an end user so always rely on your proper judgement regardless of what you see me write here.

Google Drive

As you might remember, Google recently introduced a unified ToS for all their services and products. This means that Drive gets automatically covered by the same terms that handle Maps and Gmail. Here’s the part that bothers many people, me included, in the Google’s Terms of Service.

Your Content in our Services: When you upload or otherwise submit content to our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes that we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content.

Did you read it carefully? I hope you did, because it states that whatever you upload to Google Drive, you grant Google the license to reproduce, modify, create derivative works, publicly display and distribute such content and even publish your photos, videos, code or what have you.

But it doesn’t stop there. Oh, no. Here’s what follows right after that paragraph.

The rights that you grant in this license are for the limited purpose of operating, promoting and improving our Services, and to develop new ones. This license continues even if you stop using our Services (for example, for a business listing that you have added to Google Maps).

Since Google doesn’t have a separate ToS for each of its services, it automatically means that whatever you upload to your Google Drive stays there. Forever.

There’s also another problem. Read the first sentence from the first quote again. It says that you “give Google ((and those it works with) a worldwide license to…” do whatever, basically. Now, who is “those Google works with”? Why doesn’t the search giant go into a bit more detail about that?

It’s just sad, really. Not only are we giving Google the right to do anything they want with our files, but we also give the same benefits to their “partners”.

Luckily, though, it’s not the end of the world, and here’s why. Firstly, you retain full ownership of your stuff. Here’s an excerpt of the same ToS.

You retain ownership of any intellectual property rights that you hold in that content. In short, what belongs to you stays yours.

This means if you take a great picture of the Eiffel Tower and upload it to Google Drive, Google can only retouch it a bit, print in on a very large canvas and put it wherever it wants. But at least it won’t claim it as its own.

Secondly, it’s only a big deal if you make it so. Why? Because as it turns out, Google and the rest of the cloud sharing services need to “modify, create derivative works, publicly display and distribute, reproduce”, and whatnot your files, because of the technical aspect of uploading and storing files in the computer cloud.

You see, the “Cloud” is actually a big, noisy and hopefully, not very steamy Data center, which houses a bunch of servers, where many industrial-grade hard drives buzz in a perfect harmony. There your files sit and wait for you. And in order for the service in question to host them, move them around across various data centers for backups, revisions and to generally do their work properly, they needs you to give them all the permissions you could ever imagine.

Harmless things like generating a web gallery with thumbnails out of your photo album, translating a Word document in a bunch of different languages and sharing files with friends could get Google, Dropbox and Microsoft sued if they don’t explicitly ask for those rights beforehand.

Dropbox

Dropbox experienced the problem of losing its users’ trust a while ago, when it needed to update its Terms of Service because of the aforementioned technical reasons. Initially, the users went berserk as Dropbox failed to describe in a more easy-to-understand words what license it was getting on the files.

After countless debates and numerous editing, here’s what Dropbox came up with.

By using our Services you provide us with information, files, and folders that you submit to Dropbox (together, “your stuff”). You retain full ownership to your stuff. We don’t claim any ownership to any of it. These Terms do not grant us any rights to your stuff or intellectual property except for the limited rights that are needed to run the Services, as explained below.

We may need your permission to do things you ask us to do with your stuff, for example, hosting your files, or sharing them at your direction. This includes product features visible to you, for example, image thumbnails or document previews. It also includes design choices we make to technically administer our Services, for example, how we redundantly backup data to keep it safe.

Now that’s definitely more down-to-earth language and doesn’t get in your face as a lawyer’s chit-chat over breakfast. But behind the friendly talk could hide something potentially dangerous. In fact, you give Dropbox permission to do whatever they want with your files as long as its for running their service.

This doesn’t sound much different than Google Drive now, does it?

SkyDrive

As part of Microsoft, the SkyDrive service falls under the global Terms of Service the corporation adheres to. Let’s see if you can spot a trend here.

Except for material that we license to you, we don’t claim ownership of the content you provide on the service. Your content remains your content. We also don’t control, verify, or endorse the content that you and others make available on the service.

You understand that Microsoft may need, and you hereby grant Microsoft the right, to use, modify, adapt, reproduce, distribute, and display content posted on the service solely to the extent necessary to provide the service.

Yes, Microsoft just like Google Drive and Dropbox has a solid team of lawyers, who have done their homework and have ensured the companies they work for won’t get in any legal trouble.

Conclusion

In order to not get sued from every possible angle and to make their service work as well as possible, Microsoft, Google and Dropbox (and possibly the other cloud storage players) have unfortunately granted themselves full rights over our files, photos, documents, videos, etc.

This doesn’t mean, however, that they will start doing whatever they wish with it and draw mustaches on your every photo or mess up your code just for the fun of it. That would spell disaster for any company that deals with user information.

So ultimately, using any of the cloud services is a test of your faith. Are you ready to trust Google, Dropbox or Microsoft with your files and believe that one of them will stick to its motto of not going evil on you?

Winning someone’s trust is the most difficult thing in the world and it should be the leading goal behind all the actions of these companies. Because the company that manages to earn your trust first, is the one that would snatch the spot of the King of the Cloud.

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