Behind Closed Doors: Licensed to overkill

Software suppliers must stop frightening legitimate purchasers with pages of tortuous legalese and draconian licensing terms,...

Software suppliers must stop frightening legitimate purchasers with pages of tortuous legalese and draconian licensing terms, says Colin Beveridge.




You better make sure that nobody is looking over your shoulder while you read this article – because you may well be breaking the law by becoming an unsuspecting accessory to my illegality.

The fact is that this piece was written on an illegal computer. I don’t mean that I bought it from a dodgy geezer in a pub. It’s just that I installed some unlicensed software last week, so I suppose that the whole machine must now be considered criminally contaminated.

Please don’t think about reporting me to the Federation Against Software Theft, though, or to the Business Software Alliance. I will resist them all the way to the House of Lords if they ever try to make an example of me.

Fair enough, I may well admit to having installed an unlicensed package but I do actually own the software in question. I just can’t use it legally, even though I bought it in good faith, at full price, direct from the manufacturer.

I have now realised that I’m probably something of an old lag, a habitual perpetrator of licence abuse, with a long track record of using all sorts of unlicensed software - now and in the past.

But I’ll bet anything you like that I am not an exceptional offender. I know that there must be vast numbers of other software purchasers who are in exactly the same boat as me – regularly breaking the terms of our licensing agreements with software manufacturers, simply by using legitimately bought products that we have unwittingly installed on our computers.

You may well be such a person, albeit blissfully ignorant of your own misdemeanours.

The only reason that I know that I am a dastardly software crook is because, for once, I actually took the time to read the licence terms when I was installing some new software.

Usually I am far too busy to bother with such niceties – 99% of the time, in my haste to get on and use the glitzy new software, I generally just slot in the distribution CD, or open the download, click on the button to register my acceptance of the licensing agreement and think no more about it.

Last week, though, my curiosity must have got the better of me because I scrolled through the seemingly endless pages of legalese witterings that constitute my formal agreement with the software manufacturer, becoming increasingly credulous at what I was reading.

It immediately became apparent to me that, despite having paid the princely sum of $29 US for my online purchase, I could not, in all honesty, install the software on my computer. The main problem being that, among many other stringent warnings, the licensing agreement specifically stated that the purchased software should not be installed on any computer which might be accessed by more than one person.

Excuse me, but did I miss a meeting here? Do these guys know how the real world operates? Their licensing lawyers must have been having a really bad day when they drafted that little lulu of a condition.

Like most home computers, my PC isn’t available to the world at large but I am not, by any means, the only person who ever touches its keyboard. Other members of my family use this computer from time to time, and long may they continue.

So then, having read the software licence, I had a fairly simple choice: comply fully with the stated terms and conditions of use, by abandoning the software installation immediately, thereby writing off my $29 investment as a complete waste of money; or I could gingerly step over the line of lawfulness and ignore the licence, instantly joining the serried ranks of illegal software users.

This was a no-brainer. I have paid for this software and I am going to use it, licence or no bloody licence. So I just clicked on the “accept these terms, or die” button and ploughed ahead with the installation.

Of course, I readily accept that I am in breach of the licence but, because of the wonders of technology, none of my family will actually be able to see, let alone touch, the illegitimate software, as it is safely installed within my personal “account” and, therefore, invisible to the rest of the world not in possession of my login ID and password.

Now you might feel that this is all merely a trivial anecdote, hardly worth further time in a busy schedule. But I honestly believe that there are some serious issues to be considered.

First, for years I have endeavoured to ensure that my software is sourced and used legally. And yet I have now found myself compromised by overenthusiastic, some may say draconian, licensing terms.

Second, every single software product seems to have an arbitrarily unique set of licensing terms and conditions attached to it. Which rather begs the obvious question – why can’t we rationalise the burgeoning plethora of unnecessarily complex bespoke software agreements into a simple industry standard licence?

After all, there is a “campaign for plain English” committed to simplifying communication between providers and consumers. So why shouldn’t we have a “campaign for simple, fair, software licensing"?

Haven’t you heard how the computer industry is maturing? We are supposed to be grown-ups now and we don’t need myriad reams of clauses and sub-clauses that only serve to confuse and compound our compliance.

And, finally, isn’t it about time that software licences were redrafted to be fair to both parties?

Historically it seems that almost all licensing agreements have been heavily weighted against the software purchaser and concerned predominantly with preserving the interests of the suppliers.

Oops! I used the wrong words, there didn’t I? We don’t actually buy software, do we? If there any lawyers out there, when I said purchaser I really meant licensee, honestly.

What do you think?

Would you support a campaign for simple, fair software licensing?   Tell us in an e-mail >> reserves the right to edit and publish answers on the website. Please state if your answer is not for publication.

Colin Beveridge is an independent consultant and leading commentator on technology management issues. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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