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Help File Help: Decoding License Agreements

Yesterday, Facebook announced that it's inviting its users to help rewrite its "terms of service" -- the legal document governing how the popular social-networking site deals with its users and their data.

As my colleague Kim Hart explained, Facebook is still working out the details of this ambitious experiment; it's unclear how all this will work and how long it will take. (If this process implodes, the company can blame me -- I'm one of the people who told them to try it.)

But I hope it does work -- this experiment has the promise of yielding a user agreement that users can actually understand without first collecting a law degree. Few things in personal computing -- with the possible exception of the Windows Registry -- are so difficult to comprehend as these lengthy documents.

In last week's Web chat, a user asked if I had any tricks for understanding user agreements and licenses. My reply, in part:

I do think your last sentence has the right idea: skip past the usual boilerplate and try to find the passages that could actually cause trouble. But which ones? In any sort of digital-music or digital-video download store, I'll look for the clauses governing my usage rights. In a software license, I'll want to know how many computers I can install the program on. Clauses about the protection of your privacy and mandatory arbitration are always worth reading.

At the risk of inducing a collective mid-day nap, let's continue that discussion here by trying to unpack the relatively short "ToS" document (only about 2,100 words) for Amazon's Kindle 2 e-book reader.

Here are things that I, as a non-lawyer, find unremarkable:

* The "Definitions" paragraphs describing the device, its software and its service. They're a standard component of these terms and are generally safe to skim.

* Section 2's details about the Kindle's wireless service, which boil down to "we can't guarantee this will work everywhere, so forget about suing us if your signal drops out."

* The lines restricting use of the Kindle's software to the purposes announced in the definitions and banning any hacking of it. They're standard elements in almost all closed-source programs (by contrast, open-source licenses invite you to play around with software code).

* Paragraphs about "Export Regulations" and "Government End Users." Since I'm neither an exporter nor a government worker, I read these as "blah blah blah."

* Section 5's "Disclaimer of Warranties." I can't remember ever seeing software come with a warranty worth the electrons used to display it on my screen.

And here's what looks a little more worthy of note:

* Section 3's "Use of Digital Content" paragraph, which makes it clear that only Amazon decides what devices can display a purchased Kindle e-book. It also says that "Digital Content will be deemed licensed to you by Amazon" -- note that it doesn't say "sold." As I've learned from testing too many media-download services, those two verbs have distinct meanings.

* Section 5's "Information Received" paragraph, which outlines what kind of data goes from the Kindle back up to Amazon (which, in turn, is subject to the company's privacy policy).

* Also in that section, the "Disputes" lines require you to submit not just to arbitration -- i.e., no lawsuits allowed -- but to "confidential" arbitration.

* And finally, the "Amendment" paragraph says that Amazon can rewrite these rules without directly notifying you; posting a note on the Kindle Store or somewhere on Amazon's regular site will constitute enough of a heads-up.

I also fed the Kindle 2 ToS into EULAlyzer, a free download for Mac and Windows that tries to flag any "interesting" elements (for instance, the phrase "without notice") in the text of a license agreement copied and pasted into its window. This program determined that this document had "a fairly low calculated Interest ID" -- but it didn't flag the tidbits about e-book buyers not technically owning their downloads.

Now it's your turn: When you read that document, what items jump out at you? What are your tricks for making sense of these things?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  February 27, 2009; 11:42 AM ET
Categories:  The business we have chosen , Tips  
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Comments

I actually think the Windows Registry is much more straightforward than these documents.

Posted by: Hemisphire | February 27, 2009 12:17 PM | Report abuse

The EULAlyzer site shows only a Windows download, unfortunately. So only if you run BootCamp or similar can you use it on a Mac...

Posted by: krazykat23 | March 1, 2009 2:43 PM | Report abuse

I'm always amused by the fact that the licenses for iTunes, Google Earth, and others require you to agree that you won't use the software to control nuclear reactors or aircraft navigation systems or in the development of weapon systems.

Rather than barring me from using the software that way, wouldn't it be simpler (and more effective) to simply remove that functionality in the first place?

Posted by: dactyl | March 2, 2009 1:37 PM | Report abuse

I think that EULAlyzer didn't flag the ownership statement in Section 3 because every closed source software EULA says you don't own the software, so this one is not unusual.

Posted by: Ex-Fed | March 3, 2009 1:56 PM | Report abuse

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