Dropbox just became the focus of a debate over intellectual property on the internet. Defenders are quick to point out that Facebook, Youtube, even Google Documents have similar language in their terms of service/terms of use agreements. And that’s true.

There are a couple of things to consider. One is the actual language of the contract, another is the actual use the company is making, and importantly (and what’s got everyone so worked up about Dropbox, I think) is the potential future use granted under the terms of the contract. Of course, I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve been editing legal documents and coursebooks for years now, so I know how to read legalese if nothing else.

The actual language of the new Dropbox TOS is hardly different from the Google Docs. Dropbox reads:

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 extent reasonably 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.

Compare to Google Docs TOS:

11.1 You retain copyright and any other rights you already hold in Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services. By submitting, posting or displaying the content you give Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services. This license is for the sole purpose of enabling Google to display, distribute and promote the Services and may be revoked for certain Services as defined in the Additional Terms of those Services.

They roughly ask for the same thing, since they are roughly providing the same service. Two key differences, Google starts by saying that the user retains all their rights and allows for some of the requested rights to be revoked, and Dropbox demands you have the rights to give them. The first is the kind of flexibility that Dropbox and other services should have built in. The second is a problem for people like me, who work in derivative rights. I don’t always have the rights to all my translation projects secured when I begin working on them. In fact, in my previous post, I talk about how that’s nearly impossible sometimes. So leagally, according to the TOS, I can’t use Dropbox for those projects. Same for people who are working in re-mix, mash-up, collage, etc.

There are also absurd rights being asked for in both. A lawyer on another blog breaks down what these rights are being asked for, and to some extent they make sense.

“Worldwide = Dropbox provide a globally-available service.
Non-Exclusive = Dropbox can’t and don’t prevent you from licensing your data in other ways.
Royalty-Free = You won’t charge us for this!
Sublicensable = Dropbox need to allow technology partners to copy your data too.”

Yes, all of those things make sense. Are arguably necessary. But publicly perform? Distribute? Unless the legal definition of distribute has changed, they don’t need distribution rights to make my files available to me. And derivative works makes sense in terms of format conversion, sure, but firstly I don’t want them converting my files to other formats without my permission, and secondly translation?? I certainly don’t want them translating files without explicit permission – I am, after all, a translator.

Compare, for a moment, with Amazon’s SimpleStorage service TOS:

8.1 Your Content. As between you and us, you or your licensors own all right, title, and interest in and to Your Content. Except as provided in this Section 8, we obtain no rights under this Agreement from you or your licensors to Your Content, including any related intellectual property rights. You consent to our use of Your Content to provide the Service Offerings to you and any End Users. We may disclose Your Content to provide the Service Offerings to you or any End Users or to comply with any request of a governmental or regulatory body (including subpoenas or court orders).

It’s more or less the same kind of service. And they ask for none of the rights that Dropbox and Google do – they only ask for the right to disclose content, a very very different thing. So the argument that Dropbox and Google need these rights to run their services is kind of bull.

And yes, Facebook and YouTube ask for these rights and more. That is why I don’t use Facebook for file storage, and if I have original video works I upload them to Vimeo if I want to retain the rights. Just because all the big Internet companies are doing it doesn’t make it right. And those of us smart enough to care and tech savvy enough to find alternatives will continue to do so, so long as these companies insist on claiming absurd license to our information, files and data.

The question for me isn’t what to the companies actually do right now with the rights, it’s what do they have the potential to do with them. And the rights granted under the Dropbox and Google Docs TOS are so wide that they could conceivably do lots and lots of stuff with my files. The likelihood that they will is minimal – my stuff really isn’t that interesting. But the point is the could, and I couldn’t stop them if they choose to. And that is too much risk, for someone whose creative time and energy is invested into the files I create.