Thursday, April 27, 2006

Licensers: just say it!

Certainly we've all seen online license agreements. If you install software, you have to read and agree to (as certified by a click of the mouse) an EULA. If you sign up for online access to one of your financial accounts, you have to read and agree to their license.

I understand the need for certain business agreements, but I do struggle with some of what I read. Recently, I signed up for access to an online system that asked me to read and accept an agreement before I could gain access. By automated word count, the agreement was exactly 3,600 words long! (By comparison, this rather longish blog posting has 671 words.) At the end, I had to "sign" my name to indicate that I accepted the terms of the agreement. To do that, I had to type my name twice. I'm not sure how typing my name twice made a difference over typing it just once (or not at all, for that matter).

I'm one of those who tends to try to read such agreements before signing them. Even so, I'm sure I sign up for some things that aren't in my best interest out of ignorance rather than compromise. I'm sure I accept some terms quickly because I want access and think I trust the company rather than because I understand and agree to the terms. I'm sure I don't remember next week the differences in the terms of two random agreements I accepted last week. I'm sure I don't know what was in the 3,600 word behemoth I mentioned above!

After doing this enough, I begin to get the feeling that organizations are writing license agreements they don't really want me to read and understand but that they may indeed hold me to later, if it's in their best interest. That lowers my perception of the value of their organization and my perception of me, and I don't think either are in their best interest.

A lot of the software I use is licensed under the GNU General Public License (GPL). While it takes some mental effort to understand the GPL, and there are 2,004 words in its terms and conditions, once you've understood it, you understand it each time you see it. Thus, when I get a new piece of software licensed under the GPL, I can quickly and knowledgeably accept (or refuse) its terms.

Here's a challenge: if you are responsible for products or services that require licenses, make an effort, a real effort, to make the agreement readable:


  1. Use language a layperson could reasonably be expected to understand. Add explanations for terms that are legally necessary but not commonly used or understood.

  2. Make it short.

  3. Make it obvious that you aren't trying to extract excessive rights from the reader.

  4. If there's a way to use an industry-standard license, such as the GPL, do it (without hidden changes!), so people can understand the entire document as a chunk rather than scanning each word for meaning.

  5. If you have the legal option, don't write text in all capital letters; those are generally regarded as making the text harder to read, not easier, and they give the impression you're trying to hide something.

  6. Please don't put a multi-thousand-word license agreement in a small window holding 10 lines of 5 words each.

  7. Test your license before using it. In addition to performing a legal review, let a random sample of representative, potential licensees read it. Time them to see how long it takes, and compare that to the patience you think your licensees will show later. Then ask them to write down what the agreement said. Compare what they wrote with what you wrote. Sections of your license that didn't appear in most people's answers weren't communicated effectively. Disagreements between what you asked and what people said indicate other opportunities for improvement. Fix them, retest, and, when it's ready, publish it.



The Society for Technical Communication has more information on readability.

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