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Commentary

Langa Letter: Fine-Print Follies

The current flap over FrontPage is just part of the story, Fred Langa says. The fine print is far more damaging in other companies' end-user license and terms-of-service agreements.
Many Other Examples
In a way, it's too bad that FrontPage 2002 is getting so much attention, because far worse examples of bad end-user licenses are out there. For example, reader Peter Runyan found, on a site that offers "free" computers:

"...[I]t looks really good at first, but when I read the Terms, I get the strange feeling that they are going to get more money from me than I have, or that I won't get the laptop at all. The Web site is http://free.aizohndirect.com. The Terms look like they could take the shirt off my back (if they wanted it). Is this standard operating procedure in contracts? (See sections 1.3 and 2.4.)"

The Aizohn terms-of-service document seems at first blush to be a standard "free PC" deal. In return for the use of the PC, you agree to provide detailed demographic information and accept targeted advertising from the company. But the text also states that the company can change the agreement unilaterally, and its only obligation is to try to send you an E-mail notifying you of the change. Whether or not you ever see the E-mail message, you're liable for whatever the new agreement stipulates, including all new "fees, charges, and amounts due."

Aizohn may be a fine company, with completely honorable intentions, but I agree with Peter that this kind of agreement puts too much power in the hands of the company. Why should we accept any contract that lets a vendor make what amounts to unilateral changes without our explicit foreknowledge and acceptance?

Alas, more and more end-user licenses are written in such a way that the vendor holds essentially all the cards. Juno, Microsoft, and Aizohn are just three examples among many companies that use the fine print of their terms-of-service documents or end-user licenses to bury clauses and stipulations that, I believe, most users might never agree to if the terms were spelled out in a more obvious fashion. (And I do mean "bury": The Aizohn agreement, for example, is more than 6,300 words long, Juno's is 4,300 words long, and the Microsoft FrontPage master end-user license is 3,400 words long.)

Reading all relevant end-user licenses and terms-of-service documents is a major pain, but it's becoming increasingly essential. Unless you keep your guard way up, you could be opening yourself up for a nasty surprise--though a perfectly legal one, courtesy of the fine print.

What your experience with end-user license and terms-of-services agreements? Is it your or your company's policy to read all such documents, or do you click "Accept" and hope for the best? Have you ever been ensnared by stealth terms added to such an agreement? Have you ever declined to use a product because of a too-restrictive legal document? And, with regard to the FrontPage amendment, do you agree with Fred that it's not a big deal, or is Fred letting Microsoft off the hook too easily? Join in the discussion!