Product Managers, Lawyers, and Google Chrome

Product managers have an interesting relationship with corporate attorneys. In my various product management jobs I had to deal with attorneys quite a bit, but this kind of interaction clearly doesn’t happen often enough, for reasons I can sort of understand (lawyers can be intimidating, they frequently say “no” in a overly authoritative way that evokes images of the apocalypse, and in a big company they sort of operate in their own little world).

In the consultancy I have to talk startups’ attorneys off the ledge quite a bit. I have two talks that I find myself giving over and over with lawyers: the Open Sourcing This Tool Does Not Invalidate Our Entire Business talk, and the You Don’t Get To Invent Your Own Open Source License talk.

So there can be a pretty big divide between what lawyers want and what product managers want. Their interests are slightly out of alignment (product managers want to deliver feature functionality to customers; lawyers want to insulate the business from legal risk), but that’s okay. But it does mean that these two roles need to figure out ways to communicate and negotiate to move the business forward.

Not too many people get excited at the prospect of a meeting with a lawyer, and lawyer-wrangling is not the kind of activity that product managers get much credit for. There were several developer products my team released at Yahoo! that would not have seen the light of day if my team hadn’t devoted a bunch of time to convincing the attorneys that it was in the company’s advantage to releasing them. We certainly didn’t devote the majority of the time that went into creating these products, but it’s a fact that if it weren’t for the time we put in with the lawyers, the products wouldn’t exist today as products (they’d be a set of firewalled APIs or internal tools).

So I was thinking about this dynamic this week following the release of the Google Chrome browser. The product used the standard Google licensing agreement, which gives Google a non-exclusive license to anything you submit to a Google service. Because they used the same license on the browser, people who didn’t read or understand the legalese came away with the impression that Google owns everything you do using the browser. And “non-exclusive” is key here (it means they can use your data — in a search index, for example — but they don’t “own” it). Still, it freaked some people out and for good reason — the one-size-fits-all nature of a license agreement that’s appropriate for a web site isn’t necessarily going to fit well for a browser product.

Google has since said that they’re going to look into the licensing and retroactively remove the clause from the license agreement, but in a lot of ways the damage is already done — the license kerfluffle culled some momentum from their launch and made them appear less than thoughtful. Getting this stuff right is the kind of thing that a good product manager does.