User Friendly Licensing: The Campaign Starts Here

Thursday, September 21, 2006 21:05 | Filed in Articles, Language, Standards, Technology

Isn’t it about time that software manufacturers were held to account for the licensing of their products? What happens is that you go to the shop, you buy a product, you get home and you start to install it.

At this point you’re presented with a long and complicated software license, that you’re asked to accept before you install the product. If you choose not to accept the license, you can’t install the product.

So, you’ve either got the option of signing away whatever rights you might have previously had before installing the software, or not installing it at all. Well, what happens if you choose not to install it?

Purely from the point of view of testing this, I telephoned three different high street stores claiming that I had purchased a piece of software from them, I still had the receipt, but I wasn’t prepared to accept the license agreement, so could I bring it back to them and just get my money back please? I’m not going to name the stores because I wasn’t actually in this position, I was just wanting to see what would happen: so this wasn’t a substantive test and I have no way of knowing if their responses would be representative of other stores, other branches, or even other staff in those stores.

One of the stores flatly refused, saying that if I’d opened it, and the the product was not defective, I couldn’t return it. I tried telling them that as far as I was concerned it was defective, because I couldn’t play the game without first accepting licensing conditions that I did not agree to, but this cut no ice.

The second told me that while they would not offer me a refund because they did not perceive the product to be faulty, they would allow me to exchange it for something of equivalent value. To be honest, I have a great deal of sympathy for this position — after all, it’s not their fault, and they’ve had nothing to do with the licensing yet they are still trying to help their customer. However, for me as an imaginary customer, this still isn’t really satisfactory: I’ve bought a product that I wanted, spent my travel and parking expenses, and then found I can’t use it because I choose not to accept the conditions, and if I exchange it for something else — again incurring travel and expenditure costs — I’m likely to find that the next piece of software has similar conditions, so I’ll still have the same problem.

The third shop suggested that I should contact the manufacturer directly for a refund. I pointed out to them that they sold me a product which I could only use if I accepted terms and conditions that no-one made me aware of until after I had bought the product. But again, they weren’t swayed by my arguments.

On top of this, frankly I had no idea what my legal rights regarding this actually were.

Now, in practice, what happens is that everyone just clicks Yes or I Accept to accept the license agreement without doing something silly like actually reading it. Of course, there’s a perfectly simple explanation for this — we don’t read license agreements because we already know they’re going to be full of legalese, jargon and unfamiliar concepts that we’ll at best half-understand. Yes?

Having said that I came across a license for a product the other day which I was trying to establish whether or not we could safely use at work which gave me one or two concerns:

La presente versión de TAW, así como todas sus utilidades y documentación son FREEWARE. Esto quiere decir que Usted puede instalar y utilizar este software en su PC por un periodo de tiempo ilimitado.

Debido a la naturaleza freeware de este software, éste se proporciona sin coste alguno. Freeware no es lo mismo que software de dominio público, Fundación Centro Tecnológico de la Información y la Comunicación (CTIC) mantiene el copyright sobre el software y puede establecer restricciones sobre la utilización del programa.

TAW 3 Licence

…mostly because I don’t speak or read any Spanish. The License was only available in Spanish, although the product itself was available in both English and Spanish. In this case, I contacted the company and they were happy to clarify the situation for me. They also told me that I was the first person ever to query their license agreement, and that they suspect most people don’t even read it.

As a matter of fact, this license isn’t actually too bad — it’s actually still pretty comprehensible even if you just run it through an online free translation service and the total licence agreement is under 650 words in length. Unfortunately, not many licenses are as short as this.

A quick trawl through some license agreements from work and home (see if you can guess which is which) shows quite a range in their word counts:

  • Macromedia Dreamweaver MX 2004 : 4,991 words
  • Netscape 7.1 : 4,873 words
  • The Elder Scrolls III — Morrowind : 3,043 words
  • Doom 3 : 2,797 words
  • HTML Validator Pro v6.53 : 2,189 words
  • Warcraft III : 1,983 words
  • Opera Web Browser : 1,043 words

If license agreements are expected to be legally binding — which I presume they are, since they frequently say so — then they myust be made more user friendly, and so it’s time to launch my campaign for…

User Friendly Licensing

I have a simple three-point plan:

  • A plain English summary of the license agreement is presented in not more than 300 words at the top of the license that does not require reading ability more advanced than the lower secondary education level.
  • All boxed products to have at least this license summary printed on the outside of all packaging where it can be read before buying it.
  • Ensure that the law is clear and it is widely known that anyone rejecting any license agreement terms not explicitly stated on the packaging can return the product to where they bought it for a full refund.

For no other type of product would we accept a situation where we do not know under what terms we can use the product before we’ve bought it, took it home and opened it — so why do we accept it here?

Note that in general I’m not complaining about the actual license terms, indeed I’m more than happy for the existing license type to be retained, to expand upon the points raised in the summary. However, considering that some software is purchased by children, and that some software is purchased by people with cognitive disabilities, and of the rest of us, few can adequately comprehend the legal jargon these EULAs are written in, then frankly we should not be expected to be bound to a legal agreement that is not simply explained.

As an aside, what happens if I install software on someone else’s machine without their knowledge? They haven’t agreed to the license — does that mean they aren’t bound by it? What happens if someone who is legally a child accepts a software agreement — are they bound by it?

The only reasonable alternative to providing a plain English summary license is to ban the sale of software to people who are not of the age of majority, because they cannot be expected to sign up to a binding legal agreement, particularly one in language that they can’t comprehend.

If you’re with me on this — tell people. Tell your friends, tell your family, tell journalists and tell your MP. Bring them back here and let them read what I’m asking for. It’s not too much, is it?

Come on then, who’s with me?

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5 Comments to User Friendly Licensing: The Campaign Starts Here

  1. Mike Cherim says:

    September 22nd, 2006 at 2:07 pm

    “I agree.”

    At least those are the two words I look for so I can continue installing whatever it is I’m installing. ;)

    I don’t think I’ve even read a full one. So yes, I agree that they’re waaay too verbose.

  2. Phil Teare says:

    September 25th, 2006 at 11:57 am

    I agree with all the above, but another concern is accessibility. Which could mean brail on the box? which could be extra cost, which could cause a backlash, ….

    Not easy. But worth a try!

  3. JackP says:

    September 25th, 2006 at 6:29 pm

    Phil, I see where you’re coming from – but they don’t legally seem to need the minimum system requirements on the box listed in braille, do they? Or the other blurb? So I see no reason why the contract summary should be different to these – although I think the more accessible the better!

  4. Seb Crump says:

    September 25th, 2006 at 7:31 pm

    Have you tried contacting the OFT (Office of Fair Trading) for their view on this? Last time I asked them questions about my consumer rights they were very helpful.

    The consumer queries are handled by Consumer Direct.

  5. Stew says:

    November 8th, 2011 at 11:47 am

    My hat is off to your astute comamnd over this topic-bravo!

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