Does Google's Terms of Service Let Them Steal My Copyright?

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Every once in a while, there will be rumors circulating that Google secretly gets users to sign away all their intellectual property rights to photos or other content that they upload. For example,  an article linked around on Facebook pointed out a particularly scary sounding clause in the old Google+ Terms of Service.  The article calls out the clause:

"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."

Does that mean what I think it means? Is Google stealing people's content forever?

The author of that piece was engaging in a bit of sensationalism, but maybe we all expect services like Google or Facebook to steal our content using sneaky boilerplate. As it turns out, the fears are misplaced. It's not your content you should worry about. It's your endorsement. I'll circle back to that. 

In this particular case, the author was citing a sentence from a paragraph in Google's Terms of Service (TOS.) It's pretty similar to the TOS for just about any Web service outside of Google's control. For instance, you grant Yahoo! the right to "...the perpetual, irrevocable and fully sublicensable license to use, distribute, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, publicly perform and publicly display such Content (in whole or in part) and to incorporate such Content into other works in any format or medium now known or later developed." 

In order for Web apps like blogs and photo sharing sites to work, they need your permission to publish the content, modify it for new formats (like when YouTube converts your video to a more efficient streaming format, such as MPEG), and make copies of it for publication on different screens. That's all. It goes on in the Terms to explain that the license ends when you close your account.

Ironically, it was Facebook that faced controversy over their changes to TOS several years ago. Even so, Google's "perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free" phrasing seems to generate controversy every few years as it's rediscovered, such as this time when Google used the same boilerplate for Google Chrome's TOS. 

Stealing Your Endorsements

While Google isn't stealing your content (at least not right now), they may be using your rating or review in advertising in what they call a shared endorsement.  You can disable this feature in your privacy settings.