Why are license "agreements" so uniformly terrible?

Originally published at: http://boingboing.net/2016/11/01/why-are-license-agreements.html

An excerpt from The End of Ownership: Personal Property in the Digital Economy, by Aaron Perzanowski and Jason Schultz, coming this Friday from MIT Press.




adding this book to my must read list. thanks!

going to be getting the hardcover, so i own a copy. :+1:


Let’s start with their length. The current iTunes Terms and Conditions
are over 19,000 words, translating into fifty-six pages of fine print,
longer than Macbeth. Not to be outdone, PayPal’s terms weigh in at
36,000 words, besting Hamlet by a wide margin.

What’s surprising to me, is that people who write a 264 page book on “why license agreements suck” would be shocked at the length of a EULA.


Last year I bought a Soda Stream (mostly to bring back memories of days gone past), and the usage of it with their gas canister contained a License Agreement ! I was only leasing their canister and would be breaking their warranty if I used another brand !

So I essentially only leased my Soda Streem.


EULA cliffnotes™, what a brilliant idea! Here is the short list of what you are agreeing to, want to know more and enjoy legalese read the full EULA.




Apple machines have had that clause from the beginning, and it makes sense - mod this product and we will stop supporting it. Otherwise, what if you killed yourself with delicious carbonated sulfuric acid? Should they be liable?


You can do that without violating the terms anyway (since it doesn’t restrict what liquids you may embubble). But it does protect them from liability should you install a third-party canister filled with smilex gas.


Oh I see I see. I was just thinking that would bring a smile to anybody’s face.


Embubble is my new favorite word.


I just do a search for a “$” to see if they have embedded an easter egg bonus, then grudgingly click ‘agree’…


It’s not about “shock” — these things have been around for decades at this point — it’s about presenting an argument that they’re a bad idea and the people responsible for them should feel bad. Also, unlike the EULAs, the authors have probably made an effort to make their tract readible.


I’m hoping the South Park episode, Human Centipad inspired this book…

I get all that and I think the subject is ideal… for an essay on Medium.

This article / advertisement is an excerpt from the book and it’s all I need to see to know I don’t want to read any more of it.

Think about it this way - who do you think the book was written for? Does the reader have any idea what a EULA is? Do you think their target audience has any idea at all what intellectual property is? I think so, right? I’d guess their intended audience is made up of digitally literate people that are already concerned about the impact on users of license agreements.

So why include this:

a license is a grant of permission to engage in some behavior that would otherwise be prohibited

That entire first paragraph is not needed. Get to the point. It’s that kind of exposition that bloats a paper into a book without increasing the information content.

That’s not how you write a book, especially one constructing an argument. You write to address as many people as possible, not just an ideal population of one, e.g. @Chesterfield. Remember, your audience may include people with limited experience of the modern world who may yet wield considerable influence, e.g. members of congress, so you start with statements that everyone can reasonably agree with, to establish a solid base for your later statements and opinions. Moreover, which particular truth you start with gives an indication of which way your argument may go, which makes it easier to anticipate, which makes it more likely that the reader will engage with it. A licence is many things, and this particular aspect can be phrased in many ways, depending on the argument you want to make.

A book is not an exercise in presenting unadorned facts in as small a space as possible, like the data equivalent of a flavourless Soylent product. I’ve got data books for that kind of thing, but I don’t read them, I just look things up in them. An argument isn’t just information.


That isn’t right either. You write for your audience. If your audience is one person (and there have been books written for a single person), then you tailor your message for that person.

Remember, your audience may include people with limited experience of
the modern world who may yet wield considerable influence, e.g. members
of congress

Ferchrisakes - 40% of the current Congress are lawyers. Even the ones that haven’t been through law school know what a license is. Licensing is a pretty big part of a what the government does.

Sure, but at the same time you have to be respectful of your readers and their limited time. At the very least, don’t insult their intelligence.

Personal property in a digital economy is a topic that I’m interested in. If the author’s need 200+ pages to make their point, then they have a problem. On Amazon there’s a long excerpt from the book. Read it and tell me it doesn’t feel like they have a page count goal.

BTW, I think this book is an expanded paper. See here.

Why is that a license issue. That would be covered by normal terms and conditions.

Whether I buy or leas it makes no difference to what I do wit it

Irony: the ebook version is sold with DRM; the publisher even has a completely clueless attempted justification on their website. You’d think MIT’s press could find someone who could explain to them how computers work.


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