Google denies ownership of users' words

Search giant responds to controversy surrounding use of the word "public" in its terms and conditions for Google Docs.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer
Google has denied suggestions that the terms and conditions for its Google Docs & Spreadsheets service mean that it owns any user's content published in the application.

Google Docs is part of the Google Apps platform, which offers a Web-based calendar, e-mail and document management system, and allows users to publish and share documents. Google recently announced a partnership with global consulting firm Capgemini to promote its services to the corporate sector, which has remained an elusive market for the service.

The controversy centers on Google's use of the word "public" in its terms and conditions for Google Docs.

One clause states, "By submitting, posting or displaying Content on or through Google services which are intended to be available to the members of the public, you grant Google a worldwide, nonexclusive, royalty-free license to reproduce, adapt, modify, publish and distribute such content on Google services for the purpose of displaying, distributing and promoting Google services."

In response to the concerns raised, Google Australia issued a statement, which reads, "We don't claim ownership or control over content in Google Docs & Spreadsheets, whether you're using it as an individual or through Google Apps.

"Read in their entirety, our terms of service ensure that, for documents you expressly choose to share with others, we have the proper license to display those documents to the selected users and format documents properly for different displays. To be clear, Google will not use your documents beyond the scope that you and you alone control. Australians' work documents and (soccer-oriented spreadsheets) are not going to end up shared with anyone unless the user expressly wants them to be!"

Concern about the subject initially was raised in a blog posted on August 28 by ZDNet's Joshua Greenbaum, who said: "I know that user agreements are typically ignored by most users, but anyone in the corporate world who ignores this risks seeing their IP in a Google marketing campaign, or worse." ZDNet is owned by News.com publisher CNET Networks.

A Google Australia representative responded that "CNET wrongly claimed if content was published using Google Docs, that Google had the right to publish that for marketing purposes. We have no right to share or publish that, unless you're intending to publish that yourself."

Public or private?
Matt Asay, general manager of open-source content management vendor Alfresco and a member of the CNET Blog Network, also questioned Google's use of the word "public," suggesting that its interpretation would ultimately be determined during litigation.

"Is it private, if I share (content) with my company?" Asay asked in a blog posted on August 30. "Maybe. Is it private, if I share it with my family? Maybe. It's an open question, and guess who decides? Google (or, ultimately, a court), not you. Why? Because the system doesn't provide a way to define what is private and what is public."

Asay suggested that rather than amending its terms and conditions, Google should offer users a "make this public" option in the interface to ensure that the intended meaning of public and private is communicated.

David Vaile, executive director at the Cyberspace Law and Policy Centre at the University of New South Wales, Australia, said Google should give a clear and explicit definition of what is "public," and also offer an interface that lets users control the attribute on a page-by-page basis and reminds them of this status.

Highlighting potential for the term "public" to be contested, Vaile said it can be construed in different ways, depending on the legal context. For example, in a defamation case, for it to be deemed "public," only one other person needs to hear of it or become aware of it. "It doesn't necessarily need to be in a public place, but it is beyond you and the subject you were referring to."

However, Vaile said Google should be credited for its attempt to set out the terms and conditions in plain English.

"A lot (of terms-and-conditions statements) are by lawyers, for lawyers, aimed at litigation rather than communication. You have to give people credit for dealing with a difficult problem--to be clear yet specific enough to cover all the possibilities," Vaile said.

On the other hand, Vaile said Google offers two sets of terms and conditions--a universal set and another for its Google Docs service.

"There seems to be some disconnect between Google's universal terms and that for Google Docs," he noted. "As a question of contractual interpretation, there's some serious legal confusion whether Google's terms of service are meant to be read together or whether the Google Docs terms are meant to read separately...By having two identically named documents, you've created legal confusion, and it breaks best software practice by having multiple documents."

Liam Tung of ZDNet Australia reported from Sydney.

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