Dear Lifehacker, I rely on Dropbox to sync my files between computers like I rely on oxygen for life. But in the past week I’ve been hearing that Dropbox is claiming ownership of everything I sync using their service, and well, that doesn’t sound good to me. Two days ago they updated their ToS again, and I’m having trouble wrapping my head around all of this. Should I be worried about storing my files on Dropbox? Signed, Doubting Dropbox
For many of us, all those bits syncing back and forth between our computers and Dropbox’s servers represent our life’s work, our passions and our livelihood, so you’re right to be concerned – about Dropbox or any other similar service’s Terms of Service. Let’s see if we can’t make a little more sense of this:
It Started Last Friday
Last Friday, July 1, popular file-syncing service Dropbox updated its Terms of Service to include language that, to many, implied that Dropbox owns anything that you sync to the service. Specifically, the disconcerting language read like this:
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 we think it necessary for the Service.
Sounds like they’re saying they own anything you put on their site, right? That’s not great.
It Was Clarified the Next Day
Shortly thereafter, on July 2, Dropbox updated that section with the following addition (emphasis theirs):
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 licence is solely to enable us to technically administer, display, and operate the Services.
That certainly sounds a little better, right? The idea is that Dropbox needs to be able to redistribute your files because that’s exactly what the service does: It takes your files and moves them between your computers, shares them with other people (or services you’ve connected to Dropbox), and if they’re in your Public folder, makes them publicly available on the web. Dropbox is a company, has lawyers, and the lawyers’ jobs are to help Dropbox avoid lawsuits and the like that could rise from them distributing files that you don’t give them permission to distribute. Of course that’s the whole purpose of the service (distributing files), but the ToS is there to make these things explicit.
Can You Trust Dropbox?
Unfortunately the language wasn’t great, and even if you trust that the folks at Dropbox are good people, that’s not a comfortable assumption to make. As musician Chris Randall put it:
…lawyers are not reasonable people. And the boards of large corporations aren’t reasonable people either. And these people make their living exploring the hazy area between the intent of a contract and its actual wording. And they make good livings. And they’re way, way better at reading and interpreting that intent than you or I are. Sure, Dropbox is run by reasonable people. Now. What about next week when it is purchased by Yahoo. Or Google. Or the marketing company that bought MySpace?
For many, including father-of-RSS Dave Winer, that’s a risk not worth taking.
The Current ToS, As of Two Days Ago
On Wednesday, July 8, Dropbox updated their ToS yet again in an attempt to clarify further:
…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).
Dropbox is trying very hard to make sure you’re comfortable storing your stuff in their cloud. Whether or not you are comfortable with that is up to you. You’ve got plenty of good alternatives if you want to take your files elsewhere, though as Klint Finley at ReadWriteWeb points out, most services of the type include similar clauses in their ToS.
These sort of consumer-friendly cloud services are still relatively young, and there are bound to be growing pains as expectations – from both the user and business perspectives – work out. Until they are worked out, you probably shouldn’t store anything in Dropbox (or SugarSync or Live Mesh or SpiderOak, etc.) that you don’t feel comfortable “licensing” to that service. For some, that might mean not using these services at all. For others, that might mean storing your less sensitive files.
Keep in mind that one thing you can do to better secure your stuff on these services is add a second layer of encryption to what you’re syncing to them. Doing so doesn’t fix the licensing problem, but it does make your files harder for anyone else to actually use.
Hope that helps!
P.S. We’re not lawyers or experts in this field, so if you’ve got a better or more refined point of view, we’re all ears in the comments.