Give Away Your Videos, Not Your Rights

I have pretty amazing muscle memory when it comes to accepting the terms of service for new web applications. Even on sites where there are a couple of steps, I can agree in the blink of an eye.

But what am I accepting?

For many things like software updates, it doesn't really matter. I'm not going to stop using my Mac because I don't like one of the clauses in the 37 pages of legalese that I'm forced to accept every couple of weeks.

But for other things like sharing video and images it's another thing. For anyone that professionally produces content, I think you'll want to take a look at the terms of service for the sites you regularly use to share your work. While you may want to give away your content, you don't want to blindly give away your rights.

I'm going to try to shed some light on what the terms of service are for several popular sites used by video pros. I'm going to focus on two areas. The first is whether you have the right to use these sites for commercial purposes. The second is whether you are giving up your intellectual property rights when you post your material on Vimeo and YouTube. A number of people I have spoke with have expressed concern about the later topic.

Be warned. I am not a lawyer. I thought about becoming one a long time ago, but decided that reading contracts wasn't my passion. After putting together this post, I'm sure that I made the right choice. But I digress... The point is that you should read these for yourself and if you are in doubt, check with someone more qualified than myself.

If you are a lawyer and are reading this, please take a minute away from racking up your billable hours, and give us free legal advice in the comments :).


It looks like small scale production companies are free to use the service to create things like reels and to promote their work. This is pretty much in-line with Vimeo's positioning as video creator friendly company.

For other businesses, even small ones, it's another story. If you are using Vimeo to host promotional videos, you are violating the terms unless you pay for the Pro plan. I haven't seen much word about Vimeo cracking down on this, but it's worth noting that commercial activities are pretty restricted. If you are producing a promotional video for a client, you will probably want to advise them not to host the video with Vimeo unless they have a Pro Plan.

COMMERCIAL USE: You may not use the Vimeo Service for commercial purposes unless:

You are a Vimeo PRO user, in which case you may use and access the Vimeo Service for commercial and non-commercial purposes, subject to compliance with the Vimeo PRO Guidelines; or

You are a small-scale independent production company, non-profit, or artist, in which case you may use the Vimeo Service to showcase or promote your own creative works.

When it comes to ownership rights, Vimeo looks pretty benign. Yes, the language "worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free licence" sounds pretty broad, but a close read indicates that it's simply asking for the rights necessary to operate the service and that these rights are fairly well defined. For example, Vimeo needs the rights to create derivative works from your video in order to encode it into different formats. The important thing to note is that Vimeo's rights expire when you remove videos from its service.

As an example, if you post something like a doc and you later sell it to a distributor, Vimeo only has distribution rights so long as the video is on its site. It can't later claim ownership of the content or demand royalties from your production.

9.1 Videos

LICENSE TO VIMEO: As between you and Vimeo, you own the video content ("videos") that you submit to the Vimeo Service. By submitting a video, you grant Vimeo and its affiliates a limited, worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license and right to copy, transmit, distribute, publicly perform and display (through all media now known or hereafter created), and make derivative works from your video for the purpose of (i) displaying the video within the Vimeo Service; (ii) displaying the video on third party websites and applications through a video embed or Vimeo's API subject to your video privacy choices; (iii) allowing other users to play, download, and embed on third party websites the video, subject to your video privacy choices; (iii) promoting the Vimeo Service, provided that you have made the video publicly available; and (iv) archiving or preserving the video for disputes, legal proceedings, or investigations.

LICENSE TO OTHER USERS: You further grant all users of the Vimeo Service permission to view your videos for their personal, non-commercial purposes. This includes the right to copy and make derivative works from the videos solely to the extent necessary to view the videos. The foregoing licenses are in addition to any license you may decide to grant (e.g., a Creative Commons license).

DURATION OF LICENSES: The above licenses will continue unless and until you remove your videos from the Vimeo Service, in which case the licenses will terminate within a commercially reasonable period of time. Notwithstanding the foregoing, the license for legal archival/preservation purposes will continue indefinitely. Please note that removed videos may be cached in search engine indices after removal and that Vimeo has no control over such caching.

On thing that I like about Vimeo's service when it comes to copyright is the ability to license your video to others under standard Creative Commons licenses. You can grant copyright permissions on your videos so others can copy, distribute, edit, remix, and build upon them while ensuring that you, the creator, get credit.

Your rights as a content creator will be further expanded when Vimeo introduces its forthcoming paywall service.


As you can see from just visiting the site, YouTube is much more permissive when it comes to commercial use of its service. Most things are fair game (ex.promoting your business), so long as you don't interfere with YouTube's ability to make money through advertising.

My understanding of the terms below is that you can't sell advertising within videos or put YouTube videos behind a paywall and charge people for access to them. Further, you can't put up a page simply filled with YouTube embeds and run advertisements. You can however, run your own advertisements on a page where you have embedded YouTube videos if there is enough non-YouTube content to justify the ad-sales.

4. General Use of the Service—Permissions and Restrictions

D. You agree not to use the Service for any of the following commercial uses unless you obtain YouTube's prior written approval: * the sale of access to the Service; * the sale of advertising, sponsorships, or promotions placed on or within the Service or Content; or * the sale of advertising, sponsorships, or promotions on any page of an ad-enabled blog or website containing Content delivered via the Service, unless other material not obtained from YouTube appears on the same page and is of sufficient value to be the basis for such sales. E. Prohibited commercial uses do not include: * uploading an original video to YouTube, or maintaining an original channel on YouTube, to promote your business or artistic enterprise; * showing YouTube videos through the Embeddable Player on an ad-enabled blog or website, subject to the advertising restrictions set forth above in Section 4.D; or * any use that YouTube expressly authorizes in writing.

When you upload to YouTube, you appear to grant more rights to the service than you do with Vimeo. Specifically, while you retain ownership rights, YouTube retains the right to sublicense and distribute your content in any media format and in any media channel.

YouTube's rights aren't restricted to just those needed just to run the service. If you upload video, it looks like YouTube has a non-exclusive right to monetize your content in any way that it sees fit. If it wanted to distribute or sell the breaking news story that a user has uploaded to a TV station that looks like it would be fair game. Essentially, when you upload video, you are granting YouTube almost all of the same rights that you have.

The rights you grant to YouTube would terminate in what it calls a commercially reasonable time when you delete a video. This is pretty vague, and you could still see YouTube or its licensees using the video after it has been deleted.

What would happen if you had a great idea for a TV series, put together a pilot, built an audience on YouTube, and later tried to sell the rights to a broadcaster? It looks like you would retain all of the ownership rights for the concept. YouTube could exploit the pilot you posted, but it would not own the right to your series. Further, you could take down the pilot and YouTube would no longer distribute it after a certain period of time.

6. Your Content and Conduct

C. For clarity, you retain all of your ownership rights in your Content. However, by submitting Content to YouTube, you hereby grant YouTube a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicenseable and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform the Content in connection with the Service and YouTube's (and its successors' and affiliates') business, including without limitation for promoting and redistributing part or all of the Service (and derivative works thereof) in any media formats and through any media channels. You also hereby grant each user of the Service a non-exclusive license to access your Content through the Service, and to use, reproduce, distribute, display and perform such Content as permitted through the functionality of the Service and under these Terms of Service. The above licenses granted by you in video Content you submit to the Service terminate within a commercially reasonable time after you remove or delete your videos from the Service. You understand and agree, however, that YouTube may retain, but not display, distribute, or perform, server copies of your videos that have been removed or deleted. The above licenses granted by you in user comments you submit are perpetual and irrevocable.

Google Drive

When the long awaited Google Drive service was released, it touched off a bit of a firestorm due to its terms of service, which some viewed as overly broad and sloppily constructed. What does a closer look say?

As is the case with YouTube, when you upload content, you retain all intellectual property rights. Sounds good so far.

Some of our Services allow you to submit content. You retain ownership of any intellectual property rights that you hold in that content. In short, what belongs to you stays yours.

The section that generated the controversy is the one that grants Google the following rights:

When you upload or otherwise submit content to our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content.

This part sounds like Google has all the same rights to your content as you do. This is where the tweets started. Unfortunately most of the early outcry missed the next sentence which puts limits on how your content will be used.

The rights you grant in this license are for the limited purpose of operating, promoting, and improving our Services, and to develop new ones. This license continues even if you stop using our Services (for example, for a business listing you have added to Google Maps).

Google is essentially maintaining the rights required to operate the service. This means all sorts of things like copying files to different servers (you want redundancy), modifying files (you like a nice thumbnail of the photos you uploaded), creating derivative works (so you can view documents on different devices), and publicly displaying them (if you make a file public, you want others to see it).

In all honesty, the whole purpose of Google Drive is to allow people to keep some documents private and selectively share other documents. Google isn't going to destroy its reputation by selling your files to the highest bidder. The biggest problem with Google's terms is that it has crafted one agreement that covers all of its services. With such a broad scope of services, the terms become so generic that it's difficult to figure out what they mean for each one.

For me, the issue has less to do with the risk of Google distributing my files, and more to do with the fact that everything I upload is going to be used to help build a profile of me that will be used for ad and search result optimization. I'm comfortable with this, but I think this is where the real debate should be focused.


I tend to use Dropbox a fair bit. I got hooked on the service in my last job when I worked for a large corporation and needed to transfer files between my office and my home computer. I could never get my VPN to work (I was on a Mac and they weren't Mac friendly) and they encrypted files on my USB drive. For some reason Dropbox worked. IT would have viewed it as a security risk, so the question is should you? Are you giving away rights to those unpublished scripts, client files, etc.

The short answer is no: "You retain full ownership of your stuff. We don't claim any ownership of it". Dropbox has a nice clean policy that spells out the rights it needs, the limits to those rights, and it provides some context for why it needs those rights.

Your Stuff & Your Privacy

By using our Services you provide us with information, files, and folders that you submit to Dropbox (together, “your stuff”). You retain full ownership to your stuff. We don’t claim any ownership to any of it. These Terms do not grant us any rights to your stuff or intellectual property except for the limited rights that are needed to run the Services, as explained below.

We may need your permission to do things you ask us to do with your stuff, for example, hosting your files, or sharing them at your direction. This includes product features visible to you, for example, image thumbnails or document previews. It also includes design choices we make to technically administer our Services, for example, how we redundantly backup data to keep it safe. You give us the permissions we need to do those things solely to provide the Services. This permission also extends to trusted third parties we work with to provide the Services, for example Amazon, which provides our storage space (again, only to provide the Services).

To be clear, aside from the rare exceptions we identify in our Privacy Policy, no matter how the Services change, we won’t share your content with others, including law enforcement, for any purpose unless you direct us to. How we collect and use your information generally is also explained in our Privacy Policy.

I think Dropbox does a good job of spelling out security policies as well. Perhaps its because they've learned their lessons through some past uproars about terms of service and security breaches.

The Bottom Line

As painful as it is to read these agreements, I think it's important for creative professionals be aware of how material that you upload to different services is used. Not just to protect your own rights, but also those of your clients and colleagues. Based on my interpretation you should feel pretty comfortable sharing creative materials using any of the services above.

Hopefully a new service called Terms of Service; Didn't Read will make it easier for people to compare terms in a standardized way.