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License agreements and usability

Licenses and end user agreements are almost a joke. Have you read the entire terms of every license agreement before ticking the "I agree" checkbox? It's more like a magical charm than something people take seriously.

I know there's plenty of legal discussion about this, and I don't want to talk about any of that. The generally accepted fiction is that we're supposed to read those licenses. But to uphold that fiction, the providers of these agreements are supposed to want us to read and understand the license.

The license agreement page is part of the user experience, so I've decided out of a sense of perversity to read the licenses and see if they are usable. I'll point out two cases where the providers of a service agreement clearly never expected anyone to actually read and understand the full agreement. Both have been unresponseive to my pointing out the problem. By comparison, I'll end on a high note with a free software project which wasn't following their copyright license to the letter but have been extremely responsive in fixing that problem.


I bought a flight a few months ago on Lufthansa. They require you to pay homage to the license gods and tick the "I agree" box. It links to the Terms & Conditions - General Conditions of Carriage (Passenger and Baggage), under the fiction that you are supposed to read it.

Guess what? It's incomplete. For example "Article 9: Schedules, Delays, Cancellation of Flights" says "If the legal liability rules apply we offer compensation and assistance according to Art. 14.4.1." but there is no article 14. You can see article 14 is listed in the index, where it shows that there should be 17 articles, but the page ends with article 9.

Now, if you click on the hyperlink for article 17 or go to the PDF you can see the entire terms and conditions, but the top of the page where it describes how to print the terms clearly means to say that this page is the complete T&C. It looks like there aren't any functional tests to ensure that the entire contract is shown.

I'm sure a good lawyer could use this to some advantage.

I sent a bug report to the most appropriate Lufthansa site. I got an email back which said to call a number in Germany. I haven't done that. If they aren't responsive then it's their legal fault.

Apple's iTunes Store

Next is the iTunes license agreement. I bought an iPod last month to replace one I lost a year ago. My sister and brother-in-law had bought me an iTunes gift card some time back and I wanted to finally use it. I went to the store and it said that I had to agree to the iTunes Store Terms and Conditions.

I started to read the license. It is HUGE. Printing takes 24 pages. The license is an agglomeration of licenses for several different services and contains many duplicates. That's why it mentions of the privacy policy occurs three different times in two different forms:

a. Apple's Privacy Policy. Except as otherwise expressly provided for in this Agreement, the Service is subject to Apple's Privacy Policy at http://www.apple.com/legal/privacy/, which is expressly made a part of this Agreement. If you have not already read Apple's Privacy Policy, you should do so now.
At all times your information will be treated in accordance with Apple’s Customer Privacy Policy which can be viewed at: www.apple.com/legal/privacy/.
At all times your information will be treated in accordance with Apple’s Customer Privacy Policy which can be viewed at: www.apple.com/legal/privacy/.
Notice how the first gives an escape clause while the latter two do not? Which one is legally binding?

It also includes an agreement for the App Store. As far as I know, use of the app store has nothing to do with an iPod, and I don't know why I have to make that agreement in order to purchase music. Plus, is their use of "virtual ammunition" some sort of legal term? Like how "munitions" includes cryptography? (I'm stretching things a bit here. I can guess what they mean.) I'll go with the idea that I'm agreeing to the iTunes store licenses on that page, and not agreeing with some other license which just happens to be in the text.

But questions of interpretation a different complaint. I'm talking about the usability of licenses, not the ability to understand the legalities of it. Clearly having somewhat contradictory duplicates hinders understanding.

The license says:

For more information about iTunes Plus, please read the FAQ at http://phobos.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/iTunesPlusFAQPage.
I deliberately did not include a hyperlink in that quote. I'm reading the license inside of iTunes, which neither has a hyperlink there nor lets me copy and paste the text. Since my perverse goal is to read what it says to read, I went to Safari, typed in that URL, and pressed enter. It took me to a page which contained instructions to tell Safari to tell iTunes to open up the web page.

Yes, that's right. It's not possible to view http://phobos.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/iTunesPlusFAQPage in a standard web browser. Safari automatically opens it in iTunes and Firefox gives me a box saying "This link needs to be opened with an application."

Bringing the page up in iTunes stopped my registration session, which takes place in iTunes. I had to start all over again.

I read the license. And read the license. And read it. Craig points out that there are better things in life to do than to read the license that has almost no legal reality anyway. I said I'm being perverse.

I FINALLY got to the end. Clicked the "I Agree" button. Guess what? The session had timed out. Now, I'm a decently fast reader. During that most recent session I had already read some of the text from the previous attempt and did not attempt to reread it. There is no way that anyone has actually read the text of the license agreement during the short time allotted for them.

My solution was to start over yet again, and click "I agree" without reading the text this time. I assumed that the text had not changed from the previous time I had read it. That's hard to tell.

Apple isn't even keeping alive the fiction that people read the license presented to them. I guess there was no user testing here!

I'm sure a good lawyer could use this to some advantage.

I posted a statement about this on the most likely forum at Apple and got the message that I posted to the wrong place and a pointer to the right place. I sent something there but have received no response.

On the other hand, CDK has been great

Since I've been on this license kick (it's a bad habit kids; don't start), I noticed that the CDK people were distributing code but not following their license. CDK is the Chemistry Development Kit and is an LGPL'ed collection of tools for computational chemistry.

Their jar distribution include jars from a few other projects, some of which are also LGPL'ed. The LGPL says that you have to mention those other projects in the documentation in some way, but the CDK documentation omitted those.

I emailed Egon, who is one of the main developers, and pointed this out. It's a technical flaw that almost no one would care about. I'm very happy to say that he's taken it seriously and the CDK has been going through all their code to make sure they have everything right.

It's a small sample size, and I know I'm comparing service agreements to a copyright license agreement, but it's interesting that those who have the least resources are also the most responsive and sensitive. They are also the ones who depend the most on the good will of other people.

To Egon and Stefan and the others at CDK - great job! You all surely deserve a round of drinks next time we meet. (And no, I wouldn't offer that to members of Apple or Lufthansa. Then again, they are being paid for what they do.)

Andrew Dalke is an independent consultant focusing on software development for computational chemistry and biology. Need contract programming, help, or training? Contact me

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