• Dropbox: Will Self-Sharing Make You Go Legally Blind or Worse?

    Dropbox recently changed its terms of use. Dropbox says on their blog the change was to make the terms easier for people to read as they’re written in more accessible English than in legalese. If you look at the comments on the post or read around the net, manny people were unhappy with the change. In particular, the following paragraph seems to have drawn their ire (purple underline is my emphasis):

    Photo of a confused girl

    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.

    Photo Credit: Photo by Alexandra Bellink (Alex Bellink) under an Attribution Generic license.

    People initially were upset because they misread the terms (possibly in an earlier incarnation than what I have here) to say that Dropbox owned anything you uploaded and could do anything they wanted with it. That part has been addressed by Dropbox, I think.

    However, I know I’m confused about whether or not it’s OK to use Dropbox to, for example, synchronize journal articles between my computer and my iPad. I have the right to view and store the journal articles, but I certainly don’t have the right to grant them some of the bits they’re asking for.  I think it’s related to the bit “…to the extent necessary for the Service”, meaning whatever I have asked them to do. Surely just storing and sending the files to me doesn’t violate the terms or copyright, does it? Some fellow researchers on Twitter thought that it did. At least one of them immediately dropped Dropbox.

    I believe the intent isn’t to prevent you from privately sharing things with yourself but would reasonably expect you not to be posting materials you don’t have rights to in a way that other people can access them, e.g. public shares, web pages, etc.  I’m not a lawyer though. What do the terms actually say? If you are privately sharing copyrighted material with yourself, are you in violation of the terms? Will you go blind or will the wrath of Dropbox or the publishers fall upon you? What do you think?


    8 comments on “Dropbox: Will Self-Sharing Make You Go Legally Blind or Worse?”

    • John Paulson says:

      My favorite Warren Buffett quote is this: Only buy something that you'd be perfectly happy to hold if the market shut down for 10 years.

    • Michelle (Eingang) says:

      Also see this posting from Simon Bradshaw, a UK-based lawyer who recently was part of a team investigating legal issues arising from the use of cloud computing: http://lawclanger.blogspot.com/2011/07/dropbox-te… In particular, the paragraphs about storing content you have licensed on terms that allow you to copy it:

      "What I know has concerned some people though is the rider at the end of Dropbox's clause about 'You must ensure you have the rights you need to grant us that permission.' Does this mean that you can only store content on Dropbox if you either created it or have licensed it on terms that allow you to copy it?

      I think that the practical answer to this is that you are probably fine so long as you don't go beyond the implied scope of what you are supposed to do with the material in question. To take an example, I quite often use my Westlaw access to download a case report or journal article. Westlaw give me the option to email it to myself – an activity which necessarily creates transient and, via webmail, not-so-transient copies of the copyright work in question. But nobody else has access to those, and they are incidental to my approved use of the service. I consider that saving such reports or articles to my Dropbox folder is equally legitimate. What would not be legitimate is sharing or publishing links to them – that would be outside the scope of what Westlaw is letting me use the service for."

      He specifically mentions the journal article scenario. Saving the journal articles would be legitimate in his opinion but obviously not sharing or publishing links to them.

    • Michelle (Eingang) says:

      Dropbox has updated their language again (see http://blog.dropbox.com/?p=867) in a new blog post. "We’ve never been interested in rights broader than what we need to run Dropbox. We want to get this language right so that you’re comfortable using Dropbox with no reservations: what’s yours is yours. Instead of trying to add clarifications to the terms, we’ve rewritten this part from scratch…" This fits with my feeling that it was never intended to be interpreted the way it was written. Here is the revised section:

      " …By using our Services you provide us with information, files, and folders that you submit to Dropbox (together, “your stuff”). 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. This permission also extends to trusted third parties we work with to provide the Services, for example Amazon, which provides our storage space (again, only to provide the Services).

      To be clear, aside from the rare exceptions we identify in our Privacy Policy, no matter how the Services change, we won’t share your content with others, including law enforcement, for any purpose unless you direct us to. How we collect and use your information generally is also explained in our Privacy Policy… "

      The new version is much clearer, I think, in stating what they're going to do and how things are affected. Does the new version assuage our concerns about synching copyrighted materials, like journal articles with the service?

    • daibarnes says:

      This reminds me a little of coursework for schools. I have repeatedly heard the phrase 'that would not be in the spirit of the specification' when teachers suggest ways of making sure their pupils jump through the right hoops to get the grades. I am with the exam board here until you get incredibly experienced teachers being down-marked (not me) because the pupil has not done something quite correctly, but the teacher felt they had advised the pupil accurately and the pupil had followed that advice.

      Years of haggling for what a particular statement actually means.

      I think the thing is, dropbox is free for 2Gb users. Dropbox are claiming ownership over your material. But they shouldn't. They should be allowed to scan material in case it is being shared illegally. Do the TOS differ for paying users? I'm not sure. I wonder what the evernote TOS are?

      • Michelle (Eingang) says:

        Evernote has a similar clause (http://www.evernote.com/about/tos/):
        "In order to enable Evernote to operate the Service, we must obtain from you certain license and other rights to the Content you submit (so that our processing, maintenance, storage, technical reproduction, back-up and distribution, and related handling of your Content doesn’t infringe applicable copyright and other laws). Accordingly, by using the Service and posting Content, you grant Evernote a license to display, perform and distribute your Content, and to modify (for technical purposes) and reproduce such Content to enable Evernote to operate the Service. (You also agree that Evernote has the right to elect not to accept, post, store, display, publish or transmit any Content in our sole discretion.) You agree that these rights and licenses are royalty free, irrevocable and worldwide, and include a right for Evernote to make such Content available to, and pass these rights along to, others with whom Evernote has contractual relationships related to the provision of the Evernote Service, solely for the purpose of providing such services, and to otherwise permit access to your Content to third parties if Evernote determines such access is necessary to comply with its legal obligations."

        That's a mouthful but essentially the same idea. Earlier, Evernote's terms also say:
        "Please ensure that you are mindful of the legal rights of others in copyrightable works, trademarks and service marks and their individual privacy, and do not reproduce or upload or publish Content that will violate their rights or subject you to legal liability. Evernote cannot and will not provide you legal or other advice on these issues, but will act in accordance with applicable law and in the best interests of Evernote and, in its discretion, the interests of those who use the Service. There are many legal reference sites available to you on the Internet and otherwise, and we encourage you to obtain advice from a lawyer familiar with such issues if you are unsure of your rights to upload, distribute or publish any Content."

        I believe GoogleDocs also has similar terms. As far as I know, the same Dropbox terms apply whether you are paying for the service or not. It's not because the service is free. It more seems to be a poor way of phrasing things that's suddenly been noted by people but was probably there before in intention if not wording.

    • Michelle (Eingang) says:

      I see you've made a posting of your own about this exact situation at https://www.martineve.com/2011/07/05/dropbox-youv

    • @martin_eve says:

      Many people have read the TOS in the same way that I did on our Twitter convo earlier: you have to hold the copyright to any material you upload, because otherwise you cannot legally confer the license that they require and are, therefore, committing a copyright violation.

      As non-commercial copyright infringement is a tort, and not a criminal offense, the only way you could ever be held up for this is if Dropbox actually did something public with the data you submitted and the rights-holder took you to court for granting Dropbox the license. The terms make clear that that is not likely to happen, but a couple of points:

      1.) Dropbox continually modify their TOS. Once you've granted that license, the conditions could be changed and you've already granted the license.
      2.) You're not a lawyer and I'm not a lawyer. What concerns me is the amount of debate going around that suggests that they aren't lawyers either; the TOS are extremely poorly written and do not seem watertight, or well thought through — as this whole furore is showing.

      • Michelle (Eingang) says:

        The debate has been continuing on Twitter this morning and on Google+. I don't think we're any closer to an answer yet. Some people have said they're going to go over to Wuala (http://www.wuala.com/). Wuala has a similar clause in their ToS, but it specifically limits it to cases where the data is made public:

        "The user agrees, that by making data public, the user grants LaCie a free, worldwide, non-commerical right of use of such data as well as the right of commercial use for marketing purposes in connection with Wuala. [Without agreement to the contrary, a copyright notice is to be applied and the modification of data is prohibited.]"

        I suspect that was more what was intended and the whole problem arises because the Dopbox ToS is attempting to apply in one fell swoop to the variety of uses people can use Dropbox for.

        I see also that people are still commenting on Dropbox's blog post that expands on their thinking and where they admit they've modified the terms in response to user feedback. The comments number over 2000 now.