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Published: 6/17/2000

Software license agreements mysterious but binding

Most people are quick to click "I agree" when those software license agreements appear on the computer monitor.

License agreements appear when you install new programs on a computer, or use software on a new computer for the first time. People are eager to use the new program and bored at the prospect of deciphering legal mumbo jumbo. So they just click and move on.

As a result, most people don't have the faintest idea of what they're agreeing to do with the software. It isn't just a dumb formality, either.

That mouse click puts your digital signature on a legally binding contract. Software license agreements may be the only contracts that people routinely sign without a glance. They probably violate software licenses more often than any other contract - and technically leave themselves open to legal action.

There are good reasons why most people don't read software licensing agreements, of course. For one, there's really no choice except "I agree." You want the program, then agree to the license terms. No click, no program.

Technical jargon is another pitfall. Just try reading and understanding a typical agreement. Windows 98's licensing agreement is in the online help files. To see it, click on the Windows Start button, select Help, and search for license agreement. Read for a few minutes, and your head may start to spin.

Almost all purchased software is covered by a license agreement. The terms differ from one software manufacturer to another.

Most free software, or "freeware," also carries a license. Freeware programs usually are downloaded from Internet sites without charge. Some, like the MIT or X Consortium license, grant unrestricted rights to copy, use, change, and distribute the program. Others, like the Artistic License, carry definite restrictions.

Licensing agreements do share certain basic similarities. In digitally signing an agreement, for instance, you usually agree that you:

Don't own the physical CD-ROMs, program diskettes, or instruction manuals. You don't buy the CDs, diskettes, or program code. Rather, you pay for a license, or permit, to use the program.

Can use the software on only one computer at a time. Some agreements allow you to install the program on a desktop and a laptop, so long as you don't use both simultaneously.

Can't copyright graphic images, audio clips, and other unique design elements of the program. You can't include them in a report or manuscript under your own copyright.

Can't sell or give the program to someone else, or donate it to charity, unless you first uninstall it from your own computer. You must transfer the CD-ROMS, diskettes, manuals, and all other components of the software.

Won't "loan" the software to another individual, even if the person plans to buy a copy and just wants a trial run.

The terms can lead to all kinds of complications - if software manufacturers ever wanted to press their legal rights and take individual computer users to court.

Suppose, for instance, that you buy a second-hand computer with software installed. Those programs are probably illegal copies unless the owner included the original program CD-ROMS, diskettes, and manuals.

Suppose that you occasionally work at home, using copies of your employer's office software. Unless the employer has a customized license with the manufacturer, that could be illegal use of the software.

Suppose Grandma lends you the latest copy of the antivirus software that was included with her new computer. Grandma just violated her licensing agreement.

Some software manufacturers have begun to use consumer-oriented versions of their agreements that state the terms in simple language. More people might abide by licensing agreements if they could just understand the terms.

Michael Woods is The Blade's science editor.



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