Understanding Google Drive’s Terms of Service

Last week saw the unveiling of the long-awaited Google Drive. I won’t discuss the technical details of what Google Drive delivers – others have done so in great detail – but instead focus on Google Drive’s controversial Terms of Service.

The following clause of the Google Drive Terms of Service immediately generated a firestorm of controversy:

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 we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content. The rights 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 you have added to Google Maps).

Some interpret this to mean that Google owns the content you upload to Google Drive.

It doesn’t.

The clause causing so much concern has to be intepreted in the context of the remainder of the Terms of Service:

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

as well as Google’s overarching Privacy Policy:

We do not share personal information with companies, organizations and individuals outside of Google unless one of the following circumstances apply:

  • With your consent
  • With domain administrators
  • For external processing
  • For legal reasons

(excerpted from http://www.google.com/intl/en/policies/privacy/)

The Google Drive privacy controversy is reminiscent of the Dropbox Privacy Policy imbroglio back in July 2011 where Dropbox introduced language similar to the offending clause of Google Drive’s Terms of Service; in response, Dropbox clarified its Terms of Service, changing the offending section to read:

You retain ownership to your stuff. You are also solely responsible for your conduct, the content of your files and folders, and your communications with others while using the Services.

We sometimes need your permission to do what you ask us to do with your stuff (for example, hosting, making public, or sharing your files). By submitting your stuff to the Services, you grant us (and those we work with to provide the Services) worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicenseable rights to use, copy, distribute, prepare derivative works (such as translations or format conversions) of, perform, or publicly display that stuff to the extentreasonably necessary for the Service. This license is solely to enable us to technically administer, display, and operate the Services. You must ensure you have the rights you need to grant us that permission.

Google would have been well-served to borrow a(nother) page from Dropbox’s playbook and preemptively couched its Google Drive-related Terms of Service and Privacy Policy’s in less-ambiguous (and harder to misinterpret) terms. However, in the final analysis the terms should be acceptable to most users of Google Drive.

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