Cloud services are on the rise – they are highly relevant now and they are the future. In this article we provide a brief overview of some of the legal and commercial issues to consider when using cloud services and dealing with cloud services contracts.

What are cloud services?

Cloud services describe the delivery of technology services via the internet. Cloud users either do not need to purchase or install software at all or, if they do, then only on a small scale using software that is standardised. Cloud users do not have to run their own applications and provide the computing power from their own data centres, benefitting from massive economics of scale and dramatically lowering the cost of IT service provision.

Cloud services on the rise

The UK has seen a rapid adoption of cloud computing in business with Software as a Service the preferred deployment model. Cutting costs and providing mobile working solutions for staff is the main impetus for such innovation. The flexibility and scalability of cloud computing means organisations are happy to trade-off some of the control that exists in traditional services.

The rapid take up of cloud services is not limited to the private sector. The fourth iteration of the pan-government G-Cloud Framework has just been awarded to a wide array of large and small cloud operators.

The nature of cloud service provision means that a number of well-established IT concepts need to be reconsidered and will continue to need consideration as technology is refined. Furthermore, there is increasing regulation of cloud services through a wide variety of legislative provisions that do not specifically relate to cloud service provision but have a considerable impact on cloud service provision.

How cloud service providers operate

Cloud service arrangement are generally paid for on a service basis, which means that the upfront charges for customers and regular upgrade fees associated with more traditional software licensing are avoided.

Some cloud service providers may seek to levy start-up fees or upfront subscription charges to mitigate their own commercial exposure, for example, for any third-party software licensing charges. The most common approach now is a committed term of 1 to 3 years when signing up to an enterprise SaaS service – as suppliers want to be able to recognise revenue in their accounts.

Intellectual property issues

Licensing:

Although cloud services contracts relate to the provision of services rather than to the supply of software to customers, particularly in SaaS arrangements, appropriate software licences still need to be granted to the customer. Where users have online use of software, without a licence this would amount to copyright infringement. The licences are usually very narrowly defined and limited to use of the online application for their own business purposes. Customers have no right to make copies of or modifications or enhancements to the software and they cannot sub-licence to third parties.

The cloud services provider will not always own the intellectual property rights in the software that is the subject of the cloud provision service. Where this is the case the cloud services provider will need to arrange for the right to sub-licence the software to its customers, or for a direct licence to be entered into between the customers and the relevant third-party licensors. For purposes of contractual simplicity, it is preferable (and most common) for the cloud service provider to sub-licence the customer’s use of the third-party software.

Content and Data licensing:

The extent to which cloud services providers can make use of the data that is stored within their systems by their customers has become an important issue as a result of the significant marketplace developments in data analytics, including the use of artificial intelligence. Until data analytics became a mainstream business activity, cloud providers tended to regard their customers’ data storage requirements as being a necessary business overhead as part of the overall cloud arrangement. With data analytics, customer data has become a valuable resource which can be used to provide the basis for value added data analytics derived services.

In the early days of cloud services provision, many standard terms and conditions offered by cloud service providers in the consumer market included a broad licence from the customer to the service provider allowing them to use any content stored on its servers. These licences are often expressed as being perpetual and irrevocable. The uses to which the service provider could make of the content were usually limited but there were often rights to pass the content to third parties and to use it for marketing purposes. Even in the consumer marketplace, there is now considerably more general awareness of data issues, particularly following the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal. In July 2019, the US Federal Trade Commission voted to approve fining Facebook around $5 billion to finally settle the investigation of these issues.

As a result, customers receiving cloud services should carefully consider the licensing provisions that relate to the suppliers’ use of the data that they store as a result of providing the services, particularly in relation to use of personal data, treatment of intellectual property rights and confidentiality. Customers should take particular care in identifying any rights they are agreeing to provide to the service provider. Licences may be implied by necessity or business efficacy, however a better and more certain approach is to have an express licence in place that is broad in scope and covers the full range of likely activities.

Jurisdiction and governing law

It is common for cloud services providers and their customers to be located in different jurisdictions. Where this is the case, two separate issues need to be considered: applicable law and jurisdiction. In each case, the cloud contract may stipulate choice of law and jurisdiction. However, there may also be separate and different rules on applicable law and jurisdiction that apply irrespective of provisions in the contract: data protection is a good example of this, where the GDPR has its own free standing rules.

Which law governs the contract

Usually the contract will state the laws that apply. If it doesn’t then this can be problematic, especially when cloud services are involved. Why? If, for example, the parties to the contract are based within the EU then in a B2B context it will generally be the laws of the place where the cloud services provider bases its servers that will apply. The position is more complex where service data is stored on multiple servers in different jurisdictions.

It is important therefore to ensure that cloud services contracts include a choice of law (and jurisdiction) clause.

Data Protection

When organisations process personal data they do so either as a “data controller” or a “data processor”. Each have different legal obligations when protecting personal data.

The data controller is the organisation that determines the purposes and means of the processing of personal data and is responsible for compliance with data protection law. In cloud services, the UK’s data protection regulator, the ICO, usually views the customer as the data controller, although when the supplier has a large amount of control over the processing of personal data they may be considered a joint data controller.

The data processor is the entity who processes data on behalf of a data controller. The ICO will regard the cloud services provider as a data processor in most cloud services arrangements.

Most obligations around data protection law fall on the data controller therefore, usually, the customer of a cloud services provider. A customer should therefore only allow a cloud services provider to process data on its behalf if it has appropriate organisational and technical measures in place. Special care must also be taken if international data transfers take place in connection with the processing of the customer’s data.

Checklist for cloud services contracts (buyer perspective)

Before signing on the dotted line you should consider:

  • Data storage: where will your data be stored, how is it stored, who has access to it and what security measures are in place.
  • Warranties and indemnities: consider what disclaimers are contained in the agreement and have appropriate indemnities been given for loss of data?
  • Check for hidden costs: monthly service costs may be low for a reason.
  • How will disputes be dealt with: what law applies and where will disputes be heard?
  • Data recovery: what will happen to your data at the end of the contract?

Checklist for cloud services contracts (supplier perspective)

Make sure that you have considered the following:

  • Intellectual Property Rights: although supplying software as a service is more protective of IPRs you should still make sure that your IP rights are covered.
  • Limitations and exclusions of liability: it’s standard practice to exclude liability for certain losses and to have an overall cap on liability.
  • Will you provide support commitments / service availability guarantees? Your business customers may well insist on these.
  • If you offer a subscription per person what happens if unauthorised individuals access the service? Consider including audit rights.
  • What should happen with the customer’s data at the end of the contract – you probably want the right to delete it after a certain time.
  • Choice of law and jurisdiction.

Cloud services – a multifaceted and evolving area of law

Contracts for the provision of cloud services and the legal issues being thrown up by the uptake in could services technology are evolving all the time. If you need help with cloud services contracts or any technology legal issues then please get in touch with us.