Google user licenses: Clarification would be nice, but no need to panic

Google user licenses: Clarification would be nice, but no need to panic

Summary: Google+ and Picasa are governed by Google's Terms of Service, and involve a nonexclusive license of user data to Google. Take away the license, and you take the "share" out of a sharing service.

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TOPICS: Apps, Google
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During its brief 11 days of public-albeit-limited existence, Google+ has breathed new life into online discourse.  It also has brought new interest and attention to Google's Picasa service, which allows users to share photos to Google+.

Both Google+ and Picasa are governed by Google's Terms of Service, and involve a nonexclusive license of user data to Google.  Take away the license, and you take the "share" out of a sharing service.  Users are right to pay attention to the scope and implications of the license, and it's fantastic to see people examining it and making sure they're comfortable with the terms.

Professional photographer, podcaster, and prolific blogger Scott Bourne is no stranger to giving close reads to user license grants.  Scott has decided not to use Google services in connection with his photography because he's rightly concerned it's impossible for him to grant an exclusive license for use and display of his work — something he and other photographers routinely need to do — if he has already licensed those rights elsewhere.  It's an excellent point that photographers should bear in mind when using any Web service that stores, displays, and distributes their work.  (We discussed this more on TWiL last week in connection with looking at the Dropbox terms of service.)

For users who don't need, as a matter of livelihood, to grant exclusive licenses to the text or photos they might otherwise share on a social network, Google's terms are a different matter. They grant Google the license to use submissions as necessary to run its services, with the following limitation:

This license is for the sole purpose of enabling Google to display, distribute and promote the Services...

"The Services" are elsewhere defined as Google's products, software, services and web sites.  Google would have a hard time using user content for anything other than operating and "promoting" its services (more on that below) given this language.

There are, however, a couple of areas where, as a lawyer and user, I wish the Google terms were more clear and user-cognizant.

First, users agree to let Google "make [their] Content available to other companies, organizations or individuals with whom Google has relationships for the provision of syndicated services," and that Google and those third parties may "use such Content in connection with the provision of those services." "Syndicated services" aren't otherwise defined, so I'm not sure what to make of this.  What kind of activity is this intended to cover?  API calls?  RSS and Atom?  It would be nice to see an explanation there, bearing in mind that while users may decide they trust Google, granting unspecified, Google-discretionary rights to "other companies, organizations or individuals with whom Google has relationships" is (or should be) a user red flag.  Those relationships are Google's, not the user's.

Second, and another user red flag issue, is the "promotion" license.  By signing up for Picasa and Google+, users do not reasonably contemplate pictures of their little "Sophie," conscientiously shared only to a "family" circle, showing up in ads or other materials Google may use to "promote" its services.  I'm not saying Google would do this, but if that's not the intent, the license is too broad and the language should change.  Worse, it's off-putting and inconsistent with the huge strides Google is making on the user trust, confidence, and privacy fronts with its Circles system.  My suggestions:  either eliminate "to promote" from the description of the license purpose, or provide reasonable limits, choices, and opt-outs for users for what kind of promotion is acceptable, and which submissions, if any, are eligible.  (Maybe some parallel to Circles could be useful in implementing.)  Surprises on this front are frustrating for users, and a potential PR disaster for the service — as Google well knows.

Bottom line:  I'm not personally overwrought by the license Google asks users to grant, but it could use some clarification and adjustment on the issues of third parties and promotional use.

Also worth noting:

  • The "Ending your relationship with Google" section, paragraph 13 of the terms, is a well-written, straightforward, user-friendly complement to Google's Data Liberation Front.
  • Picasa supports Creative Commons.  Go to Picasa's Settings > Privacy and Permissions tab, and you'll see four CC licenses available.  Unfortunately, this is a batch selection, not a photo-by-photo one.  (Another potentially good place to implement Circles-type controls.)

Source: Bag and Baggage: Google user licenses: clarification would be nice, but they're not panic-worthy

Topics: Apps, Google

Denise Howell

About Denise Howell

Denise Howell is an appellate, intellectual property and technology lawyer who enjoys broad industry recognition for her expertise on the intersection of emerging technologies and law.

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17 comments
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  • RE: Google user licenses: Clarification would be nice, but no need to panic

    It amuses me when non-lawyers read wording meant to stand up to the scrutiny of lawyers, then watch everyone misinterpret it and get confused.

    It's akin to reading the word "voluntary" in the U.S. tax code, then misinterpreting this to mean "optional."

    Good times. Good times.
    BIGELLOW
    • RE: Google user licenses: Clarification would be nice, but no need to panic

      @BIGELLOW AMEN!
      tom@...
  • Good analysis Dennis

    Nobody else does it like you.
    Dietrich T. Schmitz, *~* Your Linux Advocate
    • Typo: Denise. Sorry.

      @Dietrich T. Schmitz, *~* Your Linux Advocate
      nt
      Dietrich T. Schmitz, *~* Your Linux Advocate
  • RE: Google user licenses: Clarification would be nice, but no need to panic

    A cogent discussion of law + technology? Very refreshing!
    crecente
  • Granting exclusive licenses

    Presumably the hang-up with granting an exclusive license to content you've posted on a Google service is that the license you give Google is irrevocable. Otherwise, to grant an exclusive license, you would simply first revoke the license you have granted Google and its sublicensees. From a technical perspective, the problem with this is that it would be virtually impossible to scrub all copies of your content from Google's servers (including backups etc.). But perhaps a more limited sort of revocation (with some propagation time built in) could work both technically and legally. After all, the exclusive license that (e.g.) a magazine wants shouldn't exclude using a cloud-based backup system accessible only to the copyright holder.
    macrakis_z
  • What are syndicated services?"

    Syndicated services are whatever Google wants them to be and they will be happy to argue the point in court.
    pwatson
  • RE: Google user licenses: Clarification would be nice, but no need to panic

    I ask ZDnet to allow us to know WHO flags another participant in a discussion here.

    Dietrich T. Schmitz writes anything and an idiot flags his posts for no reason. I would like certain posters to disappear forever from this forum, but they have their rights as I do. I consider the posts done by children here to be nothing but pure crap, but I don't flag them because I don't like them. Sometimes I might retort their comments but flagging a post for no valuable reason shows how dumb those pseudo-human beings are.
    czorrilla
    • RE: Google user licenses: Clarification would be nice, but no need to panic

      @BIGELLOW Perhaps you are a lawyer? All legal documents should be readable and understandable to a literate speaker of the language in question, or have a preface that summarizes the document that meets that criteria. Frankly, if I need a lawyer to understand the terms of service I am entering into - then you just added a cost of $200 for use of your service!

      @czorrilla I do use the "flag" to alert "the powers that be" to content that could be deemed offensive in the moral sense (racist, sexist, promoting criminal activity etc) - but like you I mostly ignore the 2 year olds around here.
      dimonic
  • RE: Google user licenses: Clarification would be nice, but no need to panic

    This is just another OMG OMG OMG THE SKY IS FALLING article. You need to grant Google a license to use your photos in order for them to display them on the web... You need to grant them a license to use them through affiliates in order to use your google profile for third party sites so they can display your profile picture.

    If displaying something on the web would violate the terms of your license with someone else, it's simple, don't upload it. Now that we've cleared that up...
    snoop0x7b
    • RE: Google user licenses: Clarification would be nice, but no need to panic

      @snoop0x7b I suspect you misunderstood the article, since you're arguing the exact same point as the author. I have to wonder if you even read the title. It says 'no need to panic', yet you accuse the author of inciting panic? What?
      Caggles
      • RE: Google user licenses: Clarification would be nice, but no need to panic

        @Caggles

        I'm of the opinion that any article of this nature will cause panic regardless of reassurances in the text. Although I suppose I overreacted a bit.
        snoop0x7b
    • RE: Google user licenses: Clarification would be nice, but no need to panic

      @snoop0x7b If this was a perfect world we would be in Heaven where God probably maintains all copy rights.<br><br>But I know this isn't Heaven because there are lawyers here. Regardless of what any user agreement says, it's main purpose is to protect the party that requires the signing of the agreement. Generally one need not fret such agreements unless someone sees they can make a lot of money beyond the cost of lawyers.<br><br>IMHO, Lawyers are lazy leeches, and they usually won't do anything unless paid up front, and businesses aren't generally interested in bad publicity.<br><br>However, a slightly noticeable mod on a posted photo should protect the owner who doesn't wish to give away the original.<br><br>However, one can always research the case law, or even ask Google of their experiences with this.<br><br>IOW, is it "really" a problem?
      tegil
  • RE: Google user licenses: Clarification would be nice, but no need to panic

    Wish I could get rid of google altogether. They collect everything and you can't opt-out of most of the stuff they provide.
    mailman30
  • RE: Google user licenses: Clarification would be nice, but no need to panic

    This is for people like Professional photographer, podcaster, and prolific blogger Scott Bourne. Consider posting a few photos and state why there are no more and how someone might be able to see more without signing away your rights.
    tegil
  • RE: Google user licenses: Clarification would be nice, but no need to panic

    Bourne's stand on not using Google+ is being overused to get some eyeballs. As the author rightly said, the moment you decide to put your content on someone else's server or service you have to grant some rights to that provider. It is even more complicated when you are using service which are meant for sharing content. All such services including Yahoo!'s Flickr or Facebook demands same rights. There is nothing new, Bourne should have written not to put your content online, instead of targetting Google. By the way he can always put low-res version or with watermark.
    arnieswap@...
  • RE: Google user licenses: Clarification would be nice, but no need to panic

    Put your website address on every photo you upload then the more people see it the better advertising you get!
    If it is a picture you would prefer not to be used by others or have already licensed then put a ( copywrite 2011) notice with your details on picture along with your site address or name , in a position that would spoil picture if removed a derivative used or cropped.
    If you cant beat them use them to your advantage?.
    ronangel