Google Drive vs Dropbox: who owns your stuff?

Who owns the data you store on Google’s new cloud-based storage service (and so-called “Dropbox-killer”), Google Drive?

Following the announcement of Google Drive, a number of people suggested that (unlike Dropbox) Google’s terms and conditions give it “ownership” of the data you store on the service. However, these claims are confusing two separate issues: ownership, and scope of licence.

Google’s terms are, in fact, explicit on the ownership of users’ content (a point that seems to have been overlooked by some of its critics):

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

Users do give Google a very wide-ranging licence in respect of that content:

When you upload or otherwise submit content to our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide licence 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.

But even this is not completely unrestricted:

The rights that you grant in this licence are for the limited purpose of operating, promoting and improving our Services, and to develop new ones.

Anyone with a Google account has already given Google this licence in respect of other services. In some cases, such as Gmail, this licence will cover a lot of material that they would no doubt consider highly sensitive, and certainly not something they would want Google to “communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute”. Google Drive is likely to hold equally sensitive information that currently sits on users’ hard drives.

Google’s licence terms have been compared with those of Dropbox, who have had their own problems over their ownership and licensing terms in the past, but whose terms and conditions now state that:

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. You give us the permissions we need to do those things solely to provide the Services.

In practice, the scope of this licence is probably not vastly different from the one in Google’s terms, but it reads more reassuringly for customers, emphasising throughout the “limited” nature of these rights, which are “solely” to provide the services.

What can other web-based, consumer-facing businesses learn from this?

  1. Don’t neglect the legal terms when launching a new product. Yes, I know, I would say that – but Google’s error appears to have been to launch a new product without considering how its existing legal terms would apply (or be perceived to apply) to a product that gives them access to a lot of data previously unavailable to them.
  2. People are highly sensitive about content ownership and licensing – and rightly so, though often I find people (even in a business setting) focus too much on “ownership” and not enough on “scope of use”, which in practice is usually more important. As we’ve seen, Google’s terms are actually clear on ownership of data, but their licensing terms are phrased in such a way that leads many to consider that in practice Google is as good as claiming ownership anyway.
  3. Legalese can backfire. The problem with Google’s terms is that they are phrased in a very “legalistic” way. Lawyers may be able to pick the bones out of verbiage like “use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works, communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute”, but many users just read this as “all your content are belong to us”. Dropbox learned the hard way that saying simply, in plain English, what you need and intend to do, making it clear that you understand the potential concerns, is the only way to get customers to trust you. It will be interesting to see how Google responds to this same message from customers.
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