Archive for September 13th, 2004

Reinventing Software Licenses

Monday, September 13th, 2004

Let’s start with the obvious. Almost nobody reads software licenses. You know why – they’re incomprehensible, too long, and in cases where you have to use the software anyway, you’re stuck with the license regardless. The only exceptions are the large corporations who have the lawyers, time and money to deal with them. Normal people don’t bother.

Unfortunately, this has some pretty serious side-effects. Aside from the obvious fact that millions of people are in effect agreeing to contracts they’ve never read, one of the common ways that spyware and adware are spread are by having users agree to them without realizing they are doing so.

I think it is time to completely revolutionize the way we deal with software licenses. To do so, I offer the following modest proposals.

  • A law should be passed that restricts the length of software licenses for consumer software to no more than 500 words. For comparison: the BSD Open Source license is 225 words, The Claria (formerly Gator) adware license agreement is over 6600 words (15 pages single spaced).
  • Software licenses must be written in plain language that can be clearly understood by the average 13 year old.
  • Security updates to software may not include any license terms that were not present in the original software.
  • No license for released (not beta) software may include any terms that restrict speech, review or benchmarking of the software. For a software publisher to restrict free speech and commentary on their products is shameful and unethical. I do think, however, it’s fair to require that any benchmarks include the source code of the benchmark so people can independently review the results.

My Challenge to Microsoft

As the software industry leader, I call on Microsoft to take the lead in coming up with creative and user friendly solutions to this problem. To start with, try taking the software licensing process out of the hands of your lawyers, and hand it to your user interface people. They’re good, and if they can’t figure out a way to revolutionize software licenses so they work, then we should all go to open source, because the situation will truly be hopeless.

My Challenge to the Government

Yes, I know – asking Congress (which is made up primarily of lawyers) to create laws that simplify license agreements seems like a long shot. But I can dream, right?

How else do you think software licenses need to be changed? Comments welcome.