Monday, July 04, 2011

Do the new Dropbox terms of service make science harder?

Like many scientists, I work with other scientists who work at other institutions. It's the nature of the game. Collaborators are a good thing. Not a molecular biologist, but want to do genetics on snails? Find someone that does and work together. It's one of the best ways to do good science: complementary techniques and analyses. In order to communicate and share data, some of my colleagues and I use "Dropbox." It's one of those online storage services - you can access a folder/directory with about two gigabytes of storage for free. Need more? You can pay to upgrade. There are several of these kinds of services. Apple introduced it's "iCloud" service - I think it's similar, but I haven't looked at it in detail. But now maybe I will. The new terms of service for Dropbox include some rather unpleasant language:

We sometimes need your permission to do what you ask us to do with your stuff (for example, hosting, making public, or sharing your files). By submitting your stuff to the Services, you grant us (and those we work with to provide the Services) worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicenseable rights to use, copy, distribute, prepare derivative works (such as translations or format conversions) of, perform, or publicly display that stuff to the extent reasonably necessary for the Service. This license is solely to enable us to technically administer, display, and operate the Services.

Much of this is legalese and CYA language to allow a tech somewhere to make sure the system is working as it should, or recover data in the event of a server crash. But the phraseology had many of the artists who were at CONvergence foaming at the mouth. I can't blame them. I wouldn't want to grant any agency royalty-free access to my work that could be used, copied, and distributed as they saw fit. Most artists are very protective (and rightly so) of intellectual property. It's their product. It's the thing they "make" that, in turn, they sell (either the product or rights/access to the product). In science, data and information are our products. Some of this is proprietary or may be subject to an embargo prior to publication (and the journal then has ownership/rights to the product). I doubt a science journal would be happy to find out that their exclusive license still allowed another company to freely distribute new research results.

Dropbox has since updated their explanation (I got an email from Dropbox trying to explain what they meant). My take is they are trying to make it easy for a tech to check on data - without getting individual approval from each customer - and make Dropbox work as it should. It would be inconvenient if a service tech had to contact the owner of each packet of data before they swapped out backup drives or something. But the language was poorly phrased - and I think still is. The implication is that we are allowing Dropbox do whatever it wants ("deems necessary" is excellent weasel wording). And unless there are some pretty good restrictions on the definition of "whatever it wants," scientists and artists are going to balk at using the service (and some have already said they will be dropping the service altogether).

So that brings me back to the title of my post - some of the data I work with is proprietary. The Natural Heritage Inventory keeps track of all the thousands of endangered and threatened species at the local, state, and national levels. The exact location of these species is kept "secret" in that we sign an agreement with the NHI - we can use their data, but we have to control access to it. If we want to make information available to the public, we need to "generalize" the information. For example, I could say "I found Species X in this township (36 square mile area), but I couldn't say "if you go to this creek and find the spot where it flows over the large dark colored rocks just past the highway overpass you'll find the only colony of Species X that we know of." Kind of a Witness Protection Program for rare organisms.

So, how does the Dropbox terms of service affect science? I would really like to get clarification about what the company means by "distribute." Because if the NHI doesn't agree it's okay, I'm going to have to find a new way to share data (maps, manuscripts, species lists, etc.) with my colleagues that does protect the anonymity of the endangered species.

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