It seems odd to me that at a time when usage of instant messaging is growing at an incredible pace, and when more and more businesses are relying on instant messaging for business critical communications, that AOL would alter its terms of service in the most user-unfriendly way possible. Here’s the meat of the problem:

Although you or the owner of the Content retain ownership of all right, title and interest in Content that you post to any AIM Product, AOL owns all right, title and interest in any compilation, collective work or other derivative work created by AOL using or incorporating this Content. In addition, by posting Content on an AIM Product, you grant AOL, its parent, affiliates, subsidiaries, assigns, agents and licensees the irrevocable, perpetual, worldwide right to reproduce, display, perform, distribute, adapt and promote this Content in any medium. You waive any right to privacy. You waive any right to inspect or approve uses of the Content or to be compensated for any such uses.

Needless to say, that kills AIM for any kind of important business use. Yahoo’s terms of service are clearly written, and in terms of claiming rights to your submissions, are not draconian:

Yahoo! does not claim ownership of Content you submit or make available for inclusion on the Service. However, with respect to Content you submit or make available for inclusion on publicly accessible areas of the Service, you grant Yahoo! the world-wide, royalty free and non-exclusive the license to use, distribute, reproduce, modify, adapt, publicly perform and publicly display any photos and graphics you submit or make available for inclusion in the Service, solely for the purpose for which such Content was submitted or made available. This license exists only for as long as you elect to continue to include such Content on the Service and will terminate at the time you remove or Yahoo! removes such Content from the Service.

Basically they say that if you upload something for public display, they can display it publicly in any way that they choose until you tell them not to. Seems fair.

The bigger problem when it comes to business use of instant messaging, and one that has sort of been ignored due to its inconvenience, is that the messages are still sent through someone else’s servers. Most businesses wouldn’t use Gmail or Yahoo Mail for their corporate email, but many people (myself included) use an instant messaging service for critical business communications. Yahoo says unequivocally that they do not store the messages that you transmit over their service, which is somewhat comforting, but for the security conscious business, not enough, I wouldn’t think.

The alternative is, I suppose, to run your own instant messaging server. Microsoft used to provide instant messaging with Exchange services, and now they offer something called the Live Communications Server. Lotus also offers an instant messaging product for businesses. And if you don’t want to go with something provided by a giant corporation, there’s Jabber, an open instant messaging protocol with many open source and commercial clients and servers. I think AOL’s changes to their terms of service are going to hasten the adoption of some of these instant messaging platforms that companies can control. This is also going to mean that more companies block AIM (and probably other instant messaging) protocols at the firewall, because employees use instant messaging to discuss work whether or not it’s kosher with management, simply for reasons of convenience.

Update: AOL’s spokesman says the language in their TOS is standard for the industry. You can read the language in the Yahoo TOS and AIM TOS above and decide for yourself. He does seem to indicate that in the TOS, when they say “Content you post,” they don’t mean messages you exchange with other AIM users.

Update 2: AOL has updated its terms of service.