Secrets of the Software License Agreement

SAN FRANCISCO (03/28/2000) - Every time you try to install a piece of software or download something from the Internet, you click past a screen of legalese known as the software license agreement. You can't get past it without clicking on one of two buttons: Accept or Decline. Nobody actually reads this document, of course. At this point, you blindly click on Accept. After paying $300 or $800 for a piece of software, you just want to get the thing installed.

So I had something of a shock when, seized by a rare wave of boredom, I actually sat down to read one of these things in its entirety. Here's what it said:

"SOFTWARE LICENSE AGREEMENT. We, Microsoft Corp. ("God"), grant you ("powerless supplicant") a nonexclusive license to use the accompanying software a ($300 program on a 50-cent CD-with no printed manual, by the way). You are not permitted to lease, rent, distribute, sublicense, disassemble, reverse-engineer, forward-engineer, sideways-engineer, or dislike the software.

In fact, we'd sort of appreciate it if you wouldn't say bad things about the software in public.

"This agreement gives you the right to install one (1) copy of the software on one (1) computer within thirty (30) days of reading this agreement, not because we care how many times you install it, but because we think our customers are idiots who can't understand numbers unless we write them out two (2) times.

"You agree that our installer may spray your System Folder with dozens of extensions, shared libraries, control panels, preference files, fonts, and other crud, without asking first or providing a list of why we put what where.

If your computer is unstable as a result, you agree not to investigate allegations that we've entered into a secret conspiratorial cross-promotional relationship with Symantec Corporation, maker of Norton Utilities.

"This software is warranted to become obsolete after six (6) months, at which time the Software Company will offer an upgrade for a reasonable (exorbitant) fee. Such upgrades may also be required when Apple Computer Inc. releases a new operating-system version, alters the terms of its developer program, or sneezes. At our sole discretion, we may, in these subsequent upgrades, add RAM-hogging features nobody asked for, change keystroke sequences it's taken you three years to learn, or arbitrarily remove features you've grown to love.

You agree to enter this lifelong treadmill of upgrades willingly and happily and not to stumble onto the fact that AppleWorks does most of what our stuff does but at twice the speed, half the cost, and 1/300th the RAM.

"Under no circumstances shall we be liable for any incidental, consequential, or future damages arising from the use of this product. In other words, if your kids whip the CD around like a Frisbee or use it as a body-piercing ornament, that's really not our problem.

"This license agreement is effective until terminated-a lot like you, actually.

You may terminate the agreement at any time by destroying the software, documents you've created with it, and computers you've run the software on.

"You understand that I'm just an overpaid lawyer, one of 50,000 Silicon Valley legal drones toiling in climate-controlled offices somewhere, and that it doesn't really matter whether or not you accept this agreement. I've got no way of knowing if you're being a good little camper; in the history of software, nobody's ever been prosecuted for installing two (2) or even three (3) copies of this program. In fact, in the history of software, I doubt anyone's even read one of these License Agreements all the way through. I'd be quite surprised, in fact, if you're still reading this one. Nobody ever scrolls down this far. You probably clicked on Accept a long time ago and are now confronting a screen full of tool bars with inscrutable icons and no labels.

"I never wanted to be a lawyer, you know. My parents pressured me into it. I wanted to be-a lumberjack! No, wait-a novelist. Yeah, that's it! And this is the perfect publication-100 million copies of this document get distributed every year. Let's see here:

"Heart pounding, Sparrow brushed her long blond hair out of her eyes. The .45 made a cold, hard companion pressed against the white satin of her nightgown.

As the bombs began to fall on the city, she clutched the ledge of the skyscraper. 'Don't look down,' she thought. . . ."

DAVID POGUE created the Missing Manual series (, whose first titles will include Mac OS 9, Mac OS X, AppleWorks 6, and iMovie.

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