Dropbox changes their ToS, all hell broke loose

On the 1st of July 2011, Dropbox changed their ToS (Terms of Service) to make them clearer and easier to understand for the layman. The result of these changes was an uproar from many users, some of whom removed personal data, all data and in some cases closed their accounts.

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, I am not providing legal advice, I am purely stating my interpretation of Dropbox’s  ToS.

First of all, let’s look at the ToS as it stands on 4th July 2011:

You retain ownership to your stuff. You are also solely responsible for your conduct, the content of your files and folders, and your communications with others while using the Services.

 

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.

So what is getting users so worked up?

One line: “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 …”

 

People are concerned that they are handing over copyright and IP rights and that their data will be used to make a profit for Dropbox, either by sale of the files or their derivatives. However, what these people are failing to do is to read the first paragraph and the remainder of the “problematic line”.

Let’s take a look at the first paragraph:

You retain ownership to your stuff. You are also solely responsible for your conduct, the content of your files and folders, and your communications with others while using the Services.

Interesting, it says quite plainly that you retain ownership. This implies that you keep your copyright and your IP rights.

Now we shall take a look at the remaining part of the “problematic line”, as it is very important and most people skip over it:

… 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.

Hmm, to the extent reasonably necessary for the Service. Is it reasonable or necessary for Dropbox to sell access to, copies of or derivatives of your work? No. So what is the problem?

 

Looking at what Dropbox is requesting we can see “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

What does it mean to “use”? Personally I interpret that to mean they can store it and modify it.

What does it mean to “copy”? If you have, for example a desktop and laptop computer, you save a file into your Dropbox folder on your desktop. Dropbox needs your permission to duplicate your work onto their servers/the servers of Amazon and then to duplicate it onto your laptop.

“Distribute”, like “copy” implies the movement of the data from one computer to another. You may have a device in another country, or a shared folder with a friend or business associate; Dropbox needs your permission to distribute your files to these locations.

Why would Dropbox “prepare derivative works”? Those of you familiar with the “Get Shareable Link” feature may have noticed that it can display the contents of the file(s). In the case of a PDF, it is displayed not as a PDF, but as a Flash file, similar to a Youtube video. For an example, take a look here: http://db.tt/r3PGk1T

What about this “perform, or publicly display” stuff? If I send a shareable link to a friend and that friend posts the link on the internet, as a result, my file will be shared publicly. Dropbox needs your permission to do this, whether you intended to publicly share the file or not.

 

In short, Dropbox’s ToS allows Dropbox to operate and provide the functionality we all enjoy.

Will I continue to use and recommend Dropbox? Absolutely.

 

[Update 10/7/2011]

Dropbox updated their ToS again on the 6/7/2011, in an effort to clear up people’s misconceptions; it now clearly says what I have been saying all along.

 

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