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Taking License

The computer industry has been taking itself entirely too seriously, says InformationWeek site editor Esther Schindler.

A few weeks ago, the big cheeses at Borland lost control of the lawyers, and it appears that the attorneys escaped from their cages for a short time. In case you missed it, the software license for the latest version of two of their popular development tools included text that said, in part:

...upon reasonable notice and during normal business hours, Borland or its outside auditors will have the right to enter your premises and access your records and computer systems to verify that you have paid to Borland the correct amounts owed under this License and determine whether the Products are being used in accordance with the terms of this License.

This--particularly coming from the company who first adopted the common-sense "treat it like a book" license--was a somewhat incendiary (i.e., stupid) thing to do, and it caused an immediate backlash from programmers who were distinctly un-thrilled to have someone invade their homes just to check on the validity of a software license (and probably visit the refrigerator to snag some free beer while they were at it). To its credit, Borland posted an apology so quickly that, I'm sure, many an online columnist had to throw away a perfectly good rant and write something else on deadline.

The incident did, however, underscore a real problem in the computer industry. (Aside from the unfairness of editor's deadlines, that is.) The license that Borland almost-got-away-with demonstrates the grim seriousness with which we take ourselves and our work. How utterly silly.

License To Bill
A software license, like most agreements, has at its heart only two statements:

(a) We don't want you to screw us, because, gosh darnit, we'd like to stay in business, and (b) We guess you expect something for your money, so we herein provide you with a collection of ones-and-zeroes; have a good time with it.

I'm not a lawyer, but as far as I can tell everything else in the typical software license agreement is CYA text meant to reassure you that we don't promise the random bits stored on your hard disk actually do anything useful, but just remember they belong to us anyway.

Actually, I don't have an objection to any of this. As someone who has earned her own living by the clever arrangement of op codes, I don't condone piracy in any form. (I do have moments when I wonder if it's just, if not exactly legal, to copy software from out-of-business publishers ... but that's a tangent for another time.) What I do object to is the appearance that everybody has lost his sense of humor about the subject.

Well, not quite everybody. I spent some time researching the matter (I make a lot of sacrifices for you, gentle readers), and I'm relieved to tell you that a few people remain unafraid to be direct about the subject.

For instance, at the Web site of shareware author Alchemy Mindworks it clearly states:

Should you fail to register any of the evaluation software available through our Web pages and continue to use it, be advised that a leather-winged demon of the night will tear itself, shrieking blood and fury, from the endless caverns of the nether world, hurl itself into the darkness with a thirst for blood on its slavering fangs, and search the very threads of time for the throbbing of your heartbeat. Just thought you'd want to know that.

And the license for at least one of their applications says, rather refreshingly:

Neither the author(s) nor Alchemy Mindworks Inc. assume responsibility for any expense, damage, or loss caused by your use of this software, however it comes down. If you can think of a way for a picture program to cause you damage or loss, you've a sneakier mind than any of us. All the registered trademarks used herein are registered to whoever it is that owns them. This notification is given in lieu of any specific list of trademarks and their owners, which would not be as inclusive and would probably take a lot longer to type.

I haven't used any of their software, but their attitude makes me eager to try it out.

HavenTree, which once sold EasyFlow, a DOS-based application for creating flow charts (and may still do so, for all I know), also managed to be direct and funny without giving up all its legal rights. In part, its "bloodthirsty license agreement" said:

We don't claim EasyFlow is good for anything--if you think it is, great, but it's up to you to decide. If EasyFlow doesn't work: tough. If you lose a million because EasyFlow messes up, it's you that's out the million, not us. If you don't like this disclaimer: tough. We reserve the right to do the absolute minimum provided by law, up to and including nothing. This is basically the same disclaimer that comes with all software packages, but ours is in plain English and theirs is in legalese.

If you want to read the entire thing, a kind soul has archived it here.

Dragon Winging It
I'm certain that I've read other clear-but-entertaining license agreements and documentation, but it seems to be a lost art. The examples I recall are from small companies and in the dim past. For instance, I'm absolutely sure I saw a full-page ad from a company named something like "Mother's Son Software." While I never did figure out what the utility did, the license agreement--printed in full in the ad, which was a little weird--said that using the program wrongly would result in a fire-breathing dragon visiting one's abode and burning the hapless (and presumably illegal) user to a crisp.

Have the Suits and the lawyers managed to take over the whole industry? I hope not, but I'm losing faith. I couldn't find any solidly strange, recent agreements that were worth telling you about. Either I've become a poor Web searcher (I doubt it), companies no longer post their license agreements for all to see (more likely), or few users bother to read the darned things, much less talk about them in online communities (even more likely).

But the end result is that I've found few other license agreements, in recent years, that can make me smile. If you know of any candidates, please cheer me up and let me know in the Talk Shop discussion forum.

Esther Schindler is InformationWeek.com's site editor and host of its Listening Post discussion forums. She once had a life, but has forgotten from where she downloaded it.

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