When it comes to who actually owns the content you post online on your favorite social networking sites, the devil is in the details.
I happened across a great blog post from Chris Bucchere, founder and CEO of BDG – the folks behind The Social Collective. In response to a post about Robert Scoble losing his Facebook account because it was mistaken for a spam account, Chris wrote:
If you think there are safer or better places than Facebook to put “your data” on the internet, you’re also mistaken. Take a peek at Google’s TOS. In particular, read section 11, where you hand over all rights to “your” content to them (except basic copyright, which you automatically have any time you produce an original work and put your name on it). You’re basically giving Google a free license to use your content — even for their own commercial gain!
For your reading ease, here’s the part of Google’s TOS in particular that Chris was referencing:
By submitting, posting or displaying the content you give Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive licence [sic] 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.
(Yes, Google’s TOS agreement does indeed include a misspelling of the word license.)
Chris goes on to point out that this is because Google intends to parse the content and make it available to advertisers so that they’ll know what advertisements to display to you. The exact section of Google’s TOS doesn’t indicate that you lose any rights over the content that you enter. You still retain a irrevocable license over it. But it is clear that Google claims a right to reuse it as they need, and to transfer that right to anyone else.
This brings up an interesting scenario, although probably somewhat unlikely. Imagine if you posted some great ideas about a product you were building on Google Docs, and you had no intention of disclosing this information with any of your competitors because it was so fantastic. What would happen if Google either purposefully or accidentally stole that very idea and started building a competing site? This gets into a legal area that I’m totally unfamiliar with, but would love to find an IP lawyer who might be able to work out the possibilities. It would seem, though, that Google could make claim that the work you posted was prior art, making any claim to a patent you might have (or be in the process of filing) void and null.
I’m no fan of software patents, though, but I am curious what might happen.
Oh, and remember that Google promised if they do use your ideas, you’ll at least get a shout-out on their blog.