April 25, 2012 at 5:14 PM ET
Google's unified policy took effect on March 1 and covers not only the new Drive, but other Google properties. The relevant section of Google's terms of service starts off with a reassuring statement: "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."
But here's the sticky part: "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."
This last bit conjures up visions of Google employees acting out your screenplay at their next all-hands meeting. Unlikely. And it's important to note that rival services, including Dropbox, Microsoft SkyDrive and Apple's iCloud , all use similar language (though a little lighter on the legalese).
Dropbox, for example, cutely refers to your "information, files, and folders that you submit" collectively as "your stuff." It then says that "you retain full ownership to your stuff. We don’t claim any ownership to any of it."
Microsoft likewise says for all its services (presumably also its newly upgraded SkyDrive), "We don't claim ownership of the content you provide on the service. Your content remains your content."
But a lesser-known cloud service, SugarSync, doesn't appear to address the issue at all in its terms of service. Apple, Dropbox, Google and Microsoft all say they don't claim ownership, but they still need expansive permissions to deliver their services. In this context, "public" refers to users being able to access their documents from a public computer and all those scary verbs — communicate, publish, perform, display and distribute — refer to your ability to access your material from any device.
And derivative works are versions of your original document that are created based on user requests such as translations. However, all the companies say that they can revise their terms — and not all promise to notify you if they do.
It comes down to trust. Sure, the pages of your next great American novel may be safer under lock and key, but easy to edit when inspiration strikes? Not so much. It's important to remember that rivals Google, Microsoft, Dropbox, Apple and others are accountable for making a profit — abusing customer data would be business suicide. However, any digital media stored in the cloud is at risk of compromise, but it's becoming a risk that many are willing to take in exchange for instant access.
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