The Weird World Hidden in Software License Agreements

The Weird World Hidden in Software License Agreements
South Pacific islands, weapons design, the Spanish word for culpability: They're all in the fine print we routinely ignore (Photograph by Tony Wheeler/Getty Images)
Photograph by Tony Wheeler/Getty Images

A hidden world of weird wonder is inside those software license agreements that we routinely accept. Ever heard of Wallis & Futuna? Visited the courts of the city of Montevideo? Have you had a nightmare in which a legal proceeding involving you is conducted entirely in Chinese? They’re all there in the fine print.

I entered this microcosm recently when I wrote an article for Bloomberg Businessweek about the limits of mandatory disclosure laws. According to Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl Schneider, the authors of More Than You Wanted to Know: the Failure of Mandated Disclosure, only one or two shoppers out of 1,000 even glance at end-user license documentation. The agreement to buy a 99¢ song on iTunes runs 32 pages—if you print it out, which hardly anyone ever does.

Last weekend, at my wife’s request, I installed the latest version of IBM’s SPSS statistical software package on her home computer, and I decided to print out the license agreement. I wanted to see if it would be as long as iTunes’. Nope. It was 87 pages. I kept on having to feed more paper into the printer. The ink! The precious ink!

The beauty of software license agreements—the thing that makes them like William Blake’s “World in a Grain of Sand“—is that they must be comprehensive. Every place, every eventuality has to be covered to avoid misunderstandings. One assumes there are few, if any customers, for SPSS in Wallis & Futuna, a French protectorate in the South Pacific with a total population of fewer than 16,000. The protectorate’s economy, according to the CIA Factbook, “is limited to traditional subsistence agriculture, with 80 percent of labor force earnings from agriculture (coconuts and vegetables), livestock (mostly pigs), and fishing.” Should any case involving SPSS arise in Wallis & Futuna, however, it will be addresses by the Commercial Court of Paris. Merveilleux.

English is the language of choice, or at least an option, for cases in most of the world. But the IBM license specifies that if an arbitration is in China, “The arbitration will take place in Beijing and be conducted in Chinese.”

In Peru, we learn, IBM will be liable for willful misconduct, which is dolo in Spanish, and gross negligence, which is culpa inexcusable. A song in Spanish is already called “Culpable Soy Yo,” so maybe the IBM license agreement will inspire someone to write one called “Culpa Inexcusable.”

More important provisions are in the license agreement, of course, such as what appears to be a requirement that claims be made within two years of the “cause of action.” There’s a money-back guarantee “if the Program does not function as warranted during the Warranty Period and the problem cannot be resolved with information available in the IBM databases.” That kind of stuff.

But the hidden gems are what make this document worth perusing. Here’s another one: The program “may” contain Microsoft Visual Studio SDK code. If so, it may not be used “in support of any of the following High Risk Activities: design, construction, control, or maintenance of nuclear facilities, mass transit systems, air traffic control systems, weapons systems, or aircraft navigation or communications.”

It would be crazy to read each and every license agreement and other electronic disclosure from beginning to end. Try it once, though. You might learn something.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE