Google last week removed some language in its Chrome browser's terms of service that gave the company a license to any material displayed in the browser, but that language remains in several other Google products, including its Picasa photo service and its Blogger service.
The language came from Google's universal terms of service, the default license agreement for Google products.
The provision in the license agreement states that Google users retain the copyright to the content they post into a Google product, but then says, "By submitting, posting or displaying the content you give Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive licence to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display."
Similar language exists in terms of service for Picasa, Blogger, Google Docs and Google Groups. It does not exist in Gmail and no longer exists in Chrome.
The provisions raise security as well as privacy questions, said Randy Abrams, director of technical education at Eset, a cybersecurity vendor. "I wouldn't do anything that was personally sensitive or security-sensitive with most any Google product," he said.
Google removed the language from Chrome one day after launching the browser, following an outcry about the copyright implications of it asserting a license for everything posted or displayed in the browser. In some cases, Google needs the license to display content, Mike Yang, Google's senior product counsel, said in a blog post.
"To be clear: our terms do not claim ownership of your content -- what you create is yours and remains yours," Yang wrote. "But in lawyer-speak, we need to ask for a 'license' (which basically means your permission) to display this content to the wider world when that's what you intend."
Several critics questioned whether that language was appropriate in other applications provided by Google.
Google seems to be going in two different directions with these licensing terms, Abrams said. "One thing is to abide by their 'do no evil' creed, but also claim as many rights as possible," he said. "This is a typical corporate response: Try to get as much as you can and back off if forced to."
Yang also noted that similar language exists in the terms of service at several Web sites, including Amazon.com, eBay and Facebook. And the next sentence in that copyright provision limits what Google could do with a picture posted on the Picasa service or a blog post in Blogger, he said. It reads as follows: "This licence is for the sole purpose of enabling Google to display, distribute and promote the Services and may be revoked for certain Services as defined in the Additional Terms of those Services."
Yang, in an interview, said terms of service that may be needed for a Web site to display content may not be appropriate for other applications. Google "goofed" in putting the copyright language in Chrome, and the company is reviewing that copyright language in some of its other products, he said.
"There's no intent on our part to assert any sort of license for all the stuff users push to and from the Internet," Yang said. "[The universal terms of service] is a pretty broad license, but only to the extent that we need it to provide you with the services."
However, the copyright terms that still exist in Picasa, Blogger and other Google applications would allow the company to use its customers' content to promote the Google service. That could allow Google to use the content in live product demonstrations, for example, or in some promotional materials, Yang said.
Asked whether Google could take user content and use it in an advertising campaign without their permission, Yang said internal Google policies would probably prevent the company from doing it. Google wouldn't sell user content without permission, he added.
Andrew Flusche, a Fredericksburg, Virginia, lawyer who focuses on copyright and other issues, questioned how internal Google policy would guarantee protection of the end-users.
"Google's internal policy can change any time; it's their policy," Flusche said. "The only protection users have is what the EULA [end user license agreement] says."
The user agreement could allow Google to "publish a full-color book of Picasa photos as a promotional product," he added.
Google is correct when it says many Web sites have similar copyright provisions, he added. "But that doesn't mean anything," Flusche said. "The terms are still unfavorable to users; that's the dynamic of a huge corporation and millions of end-users."
However, Google would mostly likely be careful with its use of user content to promote its products, given that there's little upside in doing so, said Josh King, vice president for business development at general counsel at Avvo.com, a legal advice site.
"While the rights they've reserved themselves are very broad, it's probably a case of their actual practice being more conservative," King said. "We just have to hope they maintain their stance of not being evil."