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7 tools for cutting through software legalese

Serdar Yegulalp | June 20, 2016
EULAs got your eyes swimming? Head spinning from open source licensing terminology? These resources help you get the straight dope

The main choices are three of the most popular open source licenses -- the MIT License, the Apache License, and the GNU GPL. Each lists what you're permitted to do, what the conditions are, and any limitations associated with the license, all in simple language and with pop-up explanations for each term. Each license also has links to popular projects that use them.

A couple of things are worth noting, though. The default choice for the GNU GPL is version 3; there's no mention of v2, which is odd given that 2 is still used by many popular projects (e.g., the Linux kernel). Also, the "no license" page is written entirely from the perspective of United States copyright law, so the advice there may not apply in Europe or other places where intellectual property laws make different assumptions.


This desktop application, available in a free version for end users and a paid version for corporate users, lets you analyze the texts of EULAs and look for common red flags. The paid version, aside from being licensed for corporate use, can also automatically detect licenses when new software is installed.

To analyze a license, you can either paste in the text of a license by hand, or capture the license text if it's being displayed in a window where text copying isn't allowed. This last feature is great for dealing with click-wrap licenses, which are sometimes displayed in ways that don't lend themselves to easy offline analysis.

The resulting analysis is broken down by categories of flagged texts, such as "Promotional Messages," (e.g., for apps that show you advertising), "Without Notice," or "Third Party," and with the phrases matching those categories ranked by potential interest level. EULAs can also be submitted to the developers for additional analysis, as a way to enrich future versions of the product.


There's no substitute for an actual lawyer when it comes to getting legal advice about software licensing. But that doesn't mean you can't find resources to enlighten yourself apart from that, and a number of good books out there can provide you with the tools you need to make sense of open source and EULA licensing alike.

David W. Tollen's The Tech Contracts Handbook, published by no less than the American Bar Association, is aimed at businesspeople as well as lawyers, and provides details about the common components of software licenses. Many of those components are standard-issue items in legal contracts -- indemnity, waivers, limitation of liability, terms and termination, and so on -- but aside from explaining them in plain English, the book also talks about how such things apply to current and tricky issues, such as cloud computing SLAs.


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