An Easy Way to Explore Software Licenses

03 August 2009

BurkasThis Ipper recently finished a new book by Douglas E. Phillips called The Software License Unveiled: How Legislation by License Controls Software Access. Although, as her co-worker quipped, it is quite odd to think of software licenses in burkas (and thus able to be unveiled), Phillips does a good job explaining the true meaning of most software licenses.

[right: 3 software licenses hurry into the darkness to avoid unveiling. Burkas by Roy Evans Miranda, cc-by-nc.]

Although I think Ipper Dtrizzle would have been a more ideal audience for this book, having a background in both law and computer tech, I still found the book very interesting and readable. Despite my stumbling through part of the tech details, I think even someone with no law or tech background could find a read through The Software License Unveiled quite rewarding. Anyone who’s clicked “I Agree” on their computer screen will find some interesting morsels in it.

The Best Parts

Phillips does a good job of providing a lot of background, especially when it comes to the history of software development, the Free Software movement and the expansion of restrictive licensing terms. [Indeed, this book saved me from much embarrassment by teaching me about Richard Stallman; his name came up several times in conversations at work soon after I read about him.] The discussion of Free verses proprietary software is nicely balanced. Phillips points out the good and bad sides of both types of licenses, as well as suggesting changes from which both types could benefit.

I especially liked the reading-level and grade-level analysis of various software licenses. Users of Microsoft Word may be familiar with the Flesch-Kincaid grade level system. - My sister and I often competed to see who could get the higher grade level. It wasn’t until her fiancĂ© was in med school that we even realized it went above 12. Dtrizzle prefers to compete for the lowest grade level. - Not only is it neat to understand how this system works, but it’s also very interesting to see how different licenses compare to each other. Let’s just say, there’s no way my sister could beat the standard Free Software license (esp. GPLv3), and no way any of the proprietary of Free licenses could beat Dtrizzle (except maybe the WTFPL).

Some Concerns

One of Phillips’ premises startled me a bit. He claims, throughout the book, that software licenses are fully binding between the user and the company. My law professors have constantly insisted otherwise, including my Intellectual Property Licensing professor who said the licenses were invalid adhesion contracts. At this point, I don’t know which side to believe. Phillips presented a few cases to support his claim, but I would have liked to see more. The book also had a few minor typos, but since it’s been a long while since I’ve read a book without any, I’m beginning to assume this is standard.

Go For It

In his conclusion, Phillips says: “This book has suggested that the proliferation of legislative licensing undermines the efficiency of both models and threatens to take the digital economy in the wrong direction.” If this was his goal, he has succeeded. Phillips has done a good job of explaining the problems caused by long, detailed, inaccessible and forced licenses. He discusses the damage these types of licenses do, no matter the type of software they are attached to, and expresses some hope for changes that bring growth to the software industry and power to the user. If you’re at all interested in privately made “laws”, technology and its legal framework or the history of the software industry, you’ll enjoy taking a gander at The Software License Unveiled.

Bibliographic Details: The Software License Unveiled: How Legislation by License Controls Software Access, Douglas E. Phillips, hardcover $85.00, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-53187-4. Less than 200 pages. Small and light. High ability to fit in laptop bag. Moderate risk of making you look like a geek in public (the cover’s got some techie looking pictures on it, inside of a computer, circuit thingy, guy with weird sensors on his fingers…).

Disclaimer: I was asked to read and review this book. I was not asked to like it.


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