Updated: May 28, 2012 9:04AM
Google CEO Larry Page recently wrote that he hopes to show the company is “deserving of great love.” But the Internet search leader may need to win more trust, based on the suspicions swirling around Google Drive, a new online storage service for personal documents, photos and other content.
Within a few hours of Google Drive’s Tuesday debut, technology blogs and Twitter users were pouncing on a legal clause in the “terms of service” that could be interpreted to mean that any content stored in Google Drive automatically becomes Google Inc.’s intellectual property.
The confusion centered on a passage advising that anyone uploading or submitting content to Google Drive will grant Google “a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content.”
As those words circulated on the Internet, fears about Google Drive undermining intellectual property rights mounted. Some interpreted the legalese to mean that if an author stores a novel on the service, Google suddenly owns the work and can do whatever it likes with it.
The new service’s policy was troubling enough for The New York Times, the third-largest U.S. newspaper, to send out a note discouraging the roughly 1,000 newsroom employees from storing files on Google Drive until there’s a better understanding of the intellectual property issues and how the service works.
As it turns out, the worries are probably unfounded.
Google says the language is actually standard legalese that gives the company the licensing rights it needs to deliver on services that users’ request.
The way Google keeps documents in its data centers requires the company to obtain a license to “host, store (and) reproduce” the files. If, say, a screenwriter in China uses Google’s services to collaborate on a movie script written in Mandarin with a script editor in Hollywood who only reads English, Google needs the rights for “translations, adaptations or other changes” to allow the two writers to work on the document in different languages and make revisions.
Even everyday occurrences such as someone watching a video or pulling up a text file at an Internet cafe requires Google to retain permission to “publicly perform” or “publicly display” such content.
That doesn’t mean Google will take a screenwriter’s work-in-progress and produce a movie from it, the company says.
“Our terms of service enable us to give you the services you want — so if you decide to share a document with someone, or open it on a different device, you can,” Google said in a statement.
The hubbub may do some good, possibly prodding more people to read the rules governing Internet services such as Google Drive more carefully before signing up, says Corynne McSherry, an intellectual property lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital-rights group in San Francisco.
McSherry says she also hopes the publicity causes more people to ponder other potential pitfalls, such as privacy abuses and security breaches, before deciding to keep their digital content in a storage locker at Google Drive or similar online services.
As the owner of the Internet’s dominant search engine, Google has faced increasing scrutiny over the trove of data it gathers about Web surfers and the ways it uses the information to serve up ads based on people’s personal tastes and hobbies.
Even discerning readers of the legal disclosures can still be flummoxed by some of the turbid language.
The uproar over Google’s storage service might have died down if more attention had been paid to a straightforward statement leading up to the paragraph that set off the alarms.
“Some of our services allow you to submit content,” Google says in its disclosure. “You retain ownership of any intellectual property rights that you hold in that content. In short, what belongs to you stays yours.”
Another fine point was largely glossed over in the fuss over Google Drive: The same terms have applied to dozens of other Google services, including Gmail, since March 1. Documents and photo are frequently sent as email attachments and stored on Gmail, yet there hadn’t been any major concerns raised about that material becoming Google’s intellectual property.
Google switched its terms of service to a “one-size-fits-all” approach to simplify the disclosures in hopes that the company’s guidelines would be easier to understand. But by bunching the policies together Google is forced to address the nuances of each service with less precision.
The passage granting Google licensing rights to content transferred or stored on its services is fairly common among Internet services, McSherry says. The licensing requirements are “an artifact of copyright laws that no longer work in our modern world rather than any evil intent on Google’s part.”
Microsoft Corp.’s rival storage service, called SkyDrive, also imposes a content licensing agreement similar to Google Drive.
Dropbox Inc., a rapidly growing storage service, tells users that “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... You give us the permissions we need to do those things solely to provide the services.”
Like Google Drive, both SkyDrive and Dropbox stress that content stored on their services remains the property of the user.