It doesn't sound too sinister until you take a few moments to consider how much Google is likely to know about you. Some people are surprised to see a picture of their house when they punch in their address in the search engine. Others simply write it off to life in the New Century. The cynics celebrate the fact that Google even bothered to tell us the policies were changing.
HP spread the word about its RTU license changes, sort of, in 2007. The 3000 group worked hard to make sure we had the story details. HP posted the notices on its 3000 webpages. US Mail didn't carry the news to those who don't read their NewsWire or travel to HP's web property. Just like the Google change, however, HP meant for its new license policies to be retroactive to anything you'd signed in order to own your first HP 3000. All you had to do was use the 3000, HP said, once it changed the terms in 2007.
Google has a similar trigger. Once you sign in to anyplace on Google on March 1 or later, you will be tracked across all of Google's properties -- apps, Calendar, Mail, YouTube and more -- as if you signed into them all. These are End User License Agreements, the EULAs that New York Times columnist David Pogue noted in his list of "Things That Were Once Amazing, but Are Really Kind of Old News at This Point."
These documents often contain astonishing language along the lines of this, from the original Google Chrome browser EULA: "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."
It certainly does sound appalling. And I really have no idea what the lawyers really mean by that.
At the same time, there’s never yet been a case where this "ownership" amounted to anything. Google never published a book, for example, based on stuff its customers have written on their blogs.
Since the last time HP flexed its 3000 license muscles was 1999, we don't really know what that License Time language means in today's post-HP world of the 3000. Hewlett-Packard probably won't follow Google's path away from such steamroller language. About six months later, the license for Chrome was backed down off the ledge and included this simple explanation about Section 11.
This section is included because, under copyright law, Google needs what's called a "license" to display or transmit content. So to show a blog, we ask the user to give us a license to the blog's content. (The same goes for any other service where users can create content.) But in all these cases, the license is limited to providing the service. In Gmail, for example, the terms specifically disclaim our ownership right to Gmail content.
So for Google Chrome, only the first sentence of Section 11 should have applied. We're sorry we overlooked this, but we've fixed it now, and you can read the updated Google Chrome terms of service. If you're into the fine print, here's the revised text of Section 11:
11. Content license from you
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.
And that's all. Period. End of section.
It will take a little time to propagate this change through the 40+ languages in which Google Chrome is available, and to remove the language in the download versions. But rest assured that we're working quickly to fix this. The new terms will of course be retroactive, and will cover everyone who has downloaded Google Chrome since it was launched.
Licenses are often about "just in case." Other times they're simply taking what a large company knows a small guy can't protect -- or a deal where you have no choice. Last year, you had to give up your name to be on TV with Oprah.
The recent derby to win a starring role in a new series on the Oprah Winfrey Network forced every entrant to sign a five-page legal document. In it, OWN said it would own your name that you'd use on the show in perpetuity, IN THE KNOWN UNIVERSE. (The caps are on because that's how it appeared in the agreement. We can't be sure about any un-known universe, because we don't know about it.) But licenses only have the power, at first, that we grant them in our minds. If you don't mind the all-caps language, then they don't matter -- unless lawyers change your mind.