Monday, July 18, 2005

EULA virus

When you install a software package these days, you'll almost certainly get a click-through license agreement. Click "Agree", or you can't install the software package. You've just been screwed by an EULA, for "End User License Agreement". (I recommend pronouncing EULA like Euler: "oi'lÉ™")

Why "screwed"? Even though they're often lengthy documents not comprehensible by the layman, and even though everybody just clicks on "Agree" because they have to, EULAs have been held up in court. There is no reason the average person should have to read and understand these things to use their computer.

Getting my current system up and running has forced me to agree to dozens of EULAs (all unread) in the last few weeks. Who knows what terms and conditions I've inadvertently "agreed" to.

I once saw a proposed system where users would set up a "EULA agent". Software installers would publish their terms via a standard API to the user's agent, which would automatically reject licenses that didn't meet the user's preferences. That seems complicated and unworkable, and there's very little incentive for such a system to come about. A lot of spyware companies (and maybe even some "legitimate" businesses) benefit from an incomprehensible EULA; nobody would ever agree if they understood what they were doing.

Here's my modest proposal for a real solution: The EULA virus. (Insert mad-scientist laugh here!) The EULA virus would interpose on the standard text widgets used by InstallShield, NSIS, WISE, and the other popular installation systems. It would recognize and replace standard licenses with random other licenses ("This product is distributed under the terms of the GNU Lesser General Public License") or change a few key words (Swapping "is" and "is not" could probably create the necessary havoc.) After a random amount of time, the virus would delete all traces of itself from the infected system.

What's the point? Proving a EULA violation would become difficult or impossible: "When I installed Microsoft Office, it said it was in the public domain. Oh sure, it doesn't say that NOW, but I probably had a virus at the time." That ought to kill EULAs forever, and we will finally be able to install software without having a lawyer present.


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