Was That Covered by the User Agreement?

Have you ever read that very long user agreement that appears whenever you download a piece of software? I haven’t, but I’m tempted to do so in the future. I’m appealing to the lawyers and technical writers who put those agreements together because I had an annoying experience with the music on my recently acquired iPhone.

Is That Content Really Yours?

I suspect that I’m fighting a rear-guard action against cloud-based concepts of “ownership,” but hear me out. One reason I still buy CDs despite the ease of downloading music on iTunes is that I know, without a doubt, that the content is mine. Even if the company that operates my music-playing software goes bankrupt, gets nationalized, changes its terms of use, or otherwise has a software glitch, I can still play the music whenever I want to.

In the process of shifting my iTunes collection from iPhone 6 to iPhone 11, I discovered that not all of my music “made it” in the transfer. Some of it was greyed out. One album showed up as “that music is not available in your area/region.” I could play the music, but I’d have to start paying for Apple’s new music app to the tune of $9.99 a month. Some of my music played the same as usual. However, anything I uploaded from my CD collection can now only be played if I agree to this electronic form of ransom once a month, no doubt in perpetuity. Fortunately, I can still listen to everything on my Mac…at least for now.

This is the future of content “ownership” in the 21st century, and I’m not thrilled with it. If ever there was a reason to start patronizing libraries and buying paper books or physical CDs again, this is it. Imagine if, instead of just paying for a book once, you had to keep paying for it every month forever! The problems I just mentioned with music also apply to e-books. It might be nice if the authors were getting a piece of that perpetual monthly income, but somehow I doubt that happens. In my opinion, this is a breach of trust with the customer. But then, I didn’t read the User Agreement, did I? Caveat emptor, pal!

How to Prevent Unpleasant Surprises

So here’s where this ties back to technical communicators: if you’re one of those (un)lucky souls who gets paid to write those long user agreements, what are some ways you can make them more user-friendly? Are pages and pages of legalese really necessary for people to understand what they’re signing up for? Could some of that foolishness be handled by bullet points with the highlights and hyperlinks if someone wants a more thorough explanation? I suspect that those agreements are long on purpose to keep people from reading them. The lawyers are happy. The users? Not so much.

Sigh. The future will be different. You folks have a nice day. I have a pile of paper books to read.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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