Who Owns Your Online Documents?


With online office applications improving in quality all the time, they’re rapidly becoming the tool of choice for web workers. Between the ability to access your documents anywhere, the easy sharing, and the automatic backups, I know more and more people who are using these services. But in this rush to go online, we sometimes fail to understand exactly what we’re getting for free. Particularly as these services get used for more business purposes, it’s worth a look at their Terms of Service.

As a starting point, I looked at the terms for three of the major alternatives in the online document space: Google Docs, Zoho, and Adobe’s new Acrobat.com service. What I found might give you some pause – especially if you tend towards the cautious (or paranoid) end of the business user spectrum.

ScreenshotTo find the terms for Google Docs, you need to first go to the Help Center, and then follow three separate links to the privacy policy, terms of service, and additional terms. Here are a few highlights (and this is a good point to insert the standard “I am not a lawyer” disclaimer: for full details, you need to read the originals yourself, and discuss them with your own attorney):

  • You retain copyright, but “you give Google a 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 Service for the sole purpose of enabling Google to provide you with the Service in accordance with its Privacy Policy.”
  • Google can discontinue the service at any time with no notice, and you may lose your files with no notice.
  • Google retains the right to filter or remove content.
  • Google can put ads wherever they want, with no notice to you.
  • Deleted documents may remain on Google’s servers for up to three weeks.

ScreenshotZoho‘s TOS and privacy policy are linked directly from their home page. If you read them, you’ll find:

  • “Unless specifically permitted by you, your use of the Services does not grant AdventNet the license to use, reproduce, adapt, modify, publish or distribute the content created by you or stored in your Account for AdventNet’s commercial, marketing or any similar purpose.”
  • Zoho can block or remove content that infringes copyright or violates laws.
  • Zoho can terminate your account at any time for any reason.
  • Files may remain on their servers after deletion for an unspecified length of time.

ScreenshotAcrobat.com, like Zoho, has its services agreement and privacy policy linked from their home page. On the minor annoyances side, the terms are only available as a PDF, not online as with other services. Among the details:

  • Adobe can discontinue providing the service at any time, with no notice.
  • You retain ownership of your files, but “By maintaining your
    Content on the Services, you grant to Adobe a non-exclusive, worldwide, perpetual,
    royalty-free and fully paid license under all intellectual property rights to copy, distribute,
    transmit, publicly display, publicly perform, transmit, and reformat your Content solely
    to deliver the Services to you.”
  • Adobe may read your content for legal or technical reasons.

So what’s it all mean? Reading over all three agreements, it’s very clear that Google and Adobe have more lawyers hanging around than does AdventNet (Zoho’s corporate name). – and, like lawyers everywhere, they’ve gotten their fingers into the pie. Of the three services, Google has perhaps the most intrusive agreement, thanks to their explicitly reserving the right to serve ads anywhere. As far as ownership goes, you should be OK with any of these services; although Google and Adobe claim licenses, the full terms make it clear that these license are limited to actually providing you the service you’re using.

One thing that’s clearly missing is any sort of backup guarantee. While you may feel more secure storing your documents on Google’s or Zoho’s or Adobe’s servers than your own, that security is not something that you’re promised. Any of the three can lose your documents or terminate your ability to get to them at any time for pretty much any reason, and you’re out of luck. So if you do put important things online – back them up somewhere else.

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