As Dropbox drops users, we look at SkyDrive’s TOS

dropbox_thumb Featured News It’s been a tough couple of weeks for Dropbox, the free (up to 2gb, with a paid option for more space) service that promises to easily store and sync “your stuff”.  First, on June 19th, Dropbox, owing to a code update that introduced a bug in their authentication mechanism, ran without benefit of password protection for their users’ accounts.

Then this week Dropbox changed their Terms of Service (TOS), which, to put it mildly, hasn’t gone over too well.  So far there are over 2,400 comments, many of them none too happy,  on a blog post announcing the change, and high profile users like Dave Winer and Ed Bott are not only dropping the service, but blogging about it.

The latest issue involves a change in the TOS, which after a revision based on feedback after the announcement, still reads:

…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.

Dropbox clarifies that this is all innocent and necessary, and updated the TOS again to explain:

We don’t own your stuff. And the license you give us is really limited. It only allows us to provide the service to you. Nothing else.

We think it’s really important that you understand the license. It’s about the permissions you give us to run the service, things like creating public links when you ask us to, allowing you to collaborate with colleagues in shared folders, generating web previews or thumbnails of your files, encrypting files, creating backups… the basic things that make Dropbox safe and easy to use. Services like Google Docs and others do the same thing when they get these permissions (see, for example, section 11.1 of Google’s TOS).

Indeed, Google’s TOS for Google Docs is similar:

11.1 You retain copyright and any other rights you already hold in Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services. By submitting, posting or displaying the content you give Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services. This license is for the sole purpose of enabling Google to display, distribute and promote the Services and may be revoked for certain Services as defined in the Additional Terms of those Services

But are all services the same?  Without digging through all the legalese of all three Terms of Service, we did take a look at what SkyDrive says, and were pleased to find that Microsoft takes a somewhat different stance on the subject:

You control who may access your content. If you share content in public areas of the service or in shared areas available to others you’ve chosen, then you agree that anyone you’ve shared content with may use that content. When you give others access to your content on the service, you grant them free, nonexclusive permission to use, reproduce, distribute, display, transmit, and communicate to the public the content solely in connection with the service and other products and services made available by Microsoft. If you don’t want others to have those rights, don’t use the service to share your content.

You understand that Microsoft may need, and you hereby grant Microsoft the right, to use, modify, adapt, reproduce, distribute, and display content posted on the service solely to the extent necessary to provide the service.

Notice two main differences in these two sets of terms.  First, while Dropbox and Google take ownership themselves of “your stuff”, requiring “worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicenseable rights” (Dropbox) or “a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license” (Google), Microsoft instead focuses on the rights you’re giving up to anyone you’ve shared content with, not Microsoft.

Microsoft does need some rights, too, but they’re not “perpetual” or “sublicenseable”.  Instead, they’re clear and concise:

You understand that Microsoft may need, and you hereby grant Microsoft the right, to use, modify, adapt, reproduce, distribute, and display content posted on the service solely to the extent necessary to provide the service.

Dropbox in a lot of ways has done what we always hoped (and still do) that Microsoft would do with SkyDrive and Live Mesh, by providing a simple, working solution to syncing our files and backing them up. Truthfully, we don’t think the changes in terms are all that much to get worked up about, as Dropbox does need to declare a legal right to administer “your stuff”.  Still, we find it interesting and a bit sad that Dropbox chose Google’s TOS to model after, and not Microsoft’s, and we can understand why people like Ed Bott and Dave Winer have shied away.