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.
* 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?
February 27, 2009; 11:42 AM ET
Categories: The business we have chosen , Tips
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