End-user licensing is the effort by which producers of software, websites, mobile applications, and consumer products with embedded software (including the so-called Internet of things) attempt to define their legal relationships with the consumers or users of their products. The producers are licensors, and the consumers or end-users are the licensees. The texts that embody these legal terms can broadly be considered license agreements, but they go under many different names:
- end-user license agreements or EULAs
- terms of service or TOS
- terms of agreement
- software license agreements
- and others
The Responsible End-User Licensing lab (REUL lab) typically uses the term end-user license agreement or EULA to refer to all such agreements. Privacy policies are subject to different legal standards in some respects, and so REUL lab considers them as a separate but closely related category.
EULAs often address various legal issues that consumers could reasonably expect in a product transaction:
- Acknowledgments of the producer’s copyrights, patents, and trademarks in the product.
- Limitations on the end-user’s use of the product.
- Limitations on the producer’s liability and risks associated with the consumer’s use of the product.
- Limitations on the producer’s warranties to the end-user licensee.
But EULAs sometimes also include possibly objectionable terms:
- Transferring ownership or very broad licenses from the end-user to the producer to works that the end-user creates. For example, a website hosting end-user photos might claim a license to be able to use those photos without compensating the end-users who created them.
- Limiting the consumer’s right to write a review of the product or make other statements about it (sometimes called a DeWitt or gagwrap clause).
- Limiting the consumer’s right to make fair use under the Copyright Act of materials available in or on the product.
- Requiring that disputes between producer and consumer must be adjudicated in the producer’s ‘hometown,’ which may be cost-prohibitive for many consumers.
- Requiring that disputes between producer and consumer must be resolved by arbitration or under other terms that may be favorable to the producer.
Producers of websites and products generally wish end-users to be bound by the terms of their EULAs; in other words, producers want the EULAs to be legally enforceable contracts. Some critics have argued this is a problem on several grounds: First, it is received wisdom that few consumers actually read EULAs because of their length, complexity, the way in which they are presented, or some combination of these factors. There is actually comparatively little empirical research on this topic, but the research that exists supports this view. Second, the consumer has no means of negotiating the terms. Even at the grocery store, a consumer has the option to ask if she may have a bruised melon at a discounted price. EULAs represent take-it-or-leave-it propositions. Finally, it is not always clear that the EULA is meant to be contract.
This last concern arises from the various extents to which sites make their EULAs apparent to consumers and obtain consumer assent to the terms. The approach that is most like asking the consumer to say “I agree” is the click-through license, also sometimes called a click-wrap agreement. In this approach, the consumer is presented with a screen, dialog box, or other automated prompt that requires her to click a button or icon on the screen that says “I accept” or “I agree.” A display of the EULA or link to it accompanies the prompt. If the consumer clicks on “I accept” or “I agree,” she gains access to the product. Otherwise, she cannot make use of it.