But Who Owns my Stuff? The Dropbox Example

The storm began not in a teacup, but in a Dropbox, and it was a doozy.

What is Dropbox?

The Web-based file-hosting service that allows users to share files and photos across the Internet courtesy of cloud computing is still sweeping up from a summer squall that was set off with nothing more spectacular than some poorly chosen words.

Dropbox set the leaves in motion in June when it sought to tweak its terms of service to better explain its position on a range of platforms, including the thorny business of its ownership of the data it hosts. But its reworked explanation just served to muddy the scene, arguably further damaging cloud computing technology’s more widespread adoption.

Dropbox wrote, “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.”

Not surprisingly, the revised text sent users into a panic for its suggestion that they relinquish ownership rights as a condition of use.

Dropbox: Dropping the Ball?

Dropbox, whose first cloud-data-ownership scandal was an authentication bug that left its 25 million users’ accounts wide open in June, scrambled to address the misunderstanding, offering apologies along with yet another attempt at clarification. “When we announced an upcoming revision to our Terms of Service last week, we aimed to explain the key changes in plain language to make all our legal docs much clearer,” the company, which burst on the scene four years ago, wrote. “It’s important to us that these terms are easy to understand, and your feedback has told us that we still have work to do.

“You retain ownership of your stuff. You are solely responsible for your conduct, the content of your files and folders, and your communications with others while using the services.” The blog adds that users only grant Dropbox license to use customer data “solely to enable us to technically administer, display and operate the services.”

A few days later, the Dropbox founders followed up with more cris de coeur, presumably worried about the negative impact on cloud technologies: “We want to be 100 percent clear that you own what you put in your Dropbox,” company principals Drew Houston and Arash Ferdowsi. “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.”

Cloud Forming?

This Dropbox incident, along with a recent spate of high-profile cloud failings, might seem unfortunate for the way they undermine an emerging technology shift that promises dramatic savings, in both expenses and efficiency, to a corporate landscape hungry for both. But it may all be for the best, in the end, for the spotlight it shines on a prominent cloud operator’s pledge to the world regarding the fuzzy and emerging subject of cloud computing. “What’s yours is yours.”

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