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Howard Marks
Howard Marks
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Dropbox Redux: They Don't Really Own Your Stuff

I was until recently an enthusiastic Dropbox user. I've therefore been sitting on the sidelines and watching with amazement as a kerfuffle of unusual size has been brewing among Dropbox users. Now blog posts with titles like "Dropbox Updates Terms Of Service--Now Owns All Your Stuff" and "All Your Files Are Belong To Them" are driving more users away from the still popular service.

As I blogged last week, I was until recently an enthusiastic Dropbox user. I've therefore been sitting on the sidelines and watching with amazement as a kerfuffle of unusual size has been brewing among Dropbox users. Now articles and blog posts with titles like "Dropbox Updates Terms Of Service - Now Owns All Your Stuff" and "All Your Files Are Belong To Them" and the rabid comments they generate are driving more users away from the still popular service.

Frankly, Dropbox management has no one to blame but themselves on this one. They not only had the poor judgment to release new terms of service less than 10 days after leaving their users' data accessible without password protection, but doubled down by issuing the changes on the Friday before a three-day holiday weekend. That allowed the echo chamber of the tech blogosphere to have a field day with the company's little update.

In an even bigger mistake, Dropbox execs let the lawyers write the new terms of service. So, the same people who would happily argue that loading an application from disk into memory would qualify as a possible copyright violation if the publisher didn't grant you that particular license are now in charge of protecting their client, Dropbox, from possible lawsuits from you, the actual customer and presumably copyright holder.

So, the terms of service say, "By submitting your stuff to the Services, you grant us (and those we work with to provide the Services) worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free sub-licenseable rights to use, copy, distribute, prepare derivative works (such as translations or format conversions) of, perform, or publicly display that stuff to the extent we think it necessary for the Service. You must ensure you have the rights you need to grant us that permission." I think we can all agree that to store, backup and let me retrieve my stuff, Dropbox would need a license to use and copy that stuff. That license should be non-exclusive--I may want to license someone else, too--and royalty-free since having Dropbox pay me for the right to store my stuff doesn't seem like a good business model.

I have a bit more of a problem with performance and public display licenses, but I'm sure some lawyer thought retrieving a file over the web at a public kiosk constituted a public performance. The key here is the phrase "to the extent we think it necessary for the Service." While I'm not an attorney, I've worked with enough of them to know that if Dropbox took the photo of your puppy and used it in an advertising campaign, as one blog comment suggested, an expensive lawsuit would ensue. Try anything a reasonable man wouldn't consider necessary to run Dropbox and lawsuits will run rampant.

Howard Marks is founder and chief scientist at Deepstorage LLC, a storage consultancy and independent test lab based in Santa Fe, N.M. and concentrating on storage and data center networking. In more than 25 years of consulting, Marks has designed and implemented storage ... View Full Bio
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