Who owns your stuff in the Google Drive cloud?

Like the clouds approaching downtown Los Angeles, new "cloud computing" services are on their way.
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
<i>This post has been updated, as indicated below.</i>

As the spotlight is more prominently focused on the clouds, such as Google Drive, the era of being able to mindlessly click “OK” or “Agree” is over.

When your stuff is stored on your computer at home, you alone are responsible for keeping it safe, secure and backed up. Your roof, your rules. But when you shift from local storage to remote, you live by terms set by someone else -- and it’s best to read them.

This is true for any cloud service, not just with Google.

First, there are two sets of word-dense documents you need to read before marrying yourself to a cloud-service: the privacy policy and the terms of service. Yes, the words will bleed together from all the legal jargon, but they’re important.


Every service has its own terms, and what’s in there and how it’s written varies widely.

Something to note: For any cloud service to work as designed, you give the service permission to store and make copies of the content you upload -- that’s how your stuff ends up everywhere you want it. The cloud copy is the master.

Google clearly states in its terms of service, which now apply to all things Google: “You retain ownership of any intellectual property rights that you hold in that content. In short, what belongs to you stays yours.”

But where the Google policy gets a bit murky is what you entitle Google to do by using the service: “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.”

And, that permission continues even if you stop using the services, according to the contract.

Presumably, that’s more specific to, say, YouTube. But you’re agreeing to it for the whole kit and kaboodle.

[Updated at 11 a.m. April 25: A Google spokesman issued a statement via email affirming users’ ownership rights.

It reads: “As our Terms of Service make clear, ‘what belongs to you stays yours.’ You own your files and control their sharing, plain and simple. Our Terms of Service enable us to give you the services you want — so if you decide to share a document with someone, or open it on a different device, you can.”]

By contrast, DropBox makes no claims to user content. “You retain full ownership to your stuff,” the terms of service read. “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.”

I’ve read and re-read Box and SugarSync’s terms and privacy policy, and they don’t seem to make mention of ownership of your content. (If we’ve missed it, please let us know in the comments.)

These services will very likely become more and more integral to how we live our digital lives. The companies will need to prove themselves trustworthy as we bank our bits and bytes with them.

“All this comes back down to trust,” said Frank Gillette, an analyst with Forrester Research. “These organizations, like banks, have to convince people they are trustworthy.”

Unlike banks, however, there is no insurance for the safety -- and replacement -- of our digital stuff.

Although nearly every provider’s TOS is different, one thing remains the same. They all tell you explicitly they are not responsible for any loss you experience.

So before jumping on the cloud bandwagon, you might want to figure out how to back yourself up if your stuff should dissipate like an actual cloud in the sky.


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