Software vendors should make licenses available before consumers buy

An old rumor resurfaced the other day. It's an old chestnut that has been around for awhile. Windows 2000 (Win2K), the rumor goes, will have a software license that lets you run the OS for only one year, after which the OS stops working. Consequently, you'll have to repurchase your OS from Microsoft every year. I wouldn't worry too much about this rumor. Annoyed customers could mean sure death for Microsoft. Can you imagine being forced to reinstall the OS on your servers every year? But the rumor got me thinking about software licenses.

In a previous column, I suggested that software vendors should publish their lists of known bugs on their Web sites. That suggestion is a lot to ask, so let's make a seemingly easier request of software vendors: How about publishing the terms of your software licenses so we can read the licenses before we buy your software programs?

"Nobody cares about software licenses," you might think. "Don't these pieces of paper with tiny print just say 'Don't hand around copies of this software to your friends and family?'"

Yes, licenses do say that, but there are many more words in there. For example, here's a quiz: Your boss buys a copy of Microsoft Office and tells you to install Office on your computer at work. Can you also install copies of Office on your company laptop and your home PC?

The answer to that question depends on your version of Office. Office 4.2 requires only one Office license to install the software on all three machines. Office 95 lets you install the software on your office PC and on your laptop or your home machine, but not all three. Office 97 lets you install the software on your office PC and your company laptop, period. You can't install Office 97 on a home machine with a corporate Office 97 license.

That's a pretty big licensing change, wouldn't you say? The shift is an important implicit price increase, yet I've never met anyone who knows about the change in Office's licensing. By the way, you can still install Lotus' competing SmartSuite on all three machines under one license. I know that only because I own a copy. I don't know about Corel's WordPerfect Suite because, like virtually all other software products, its license isn't available until after you buy the product. If businesses knew about Office 97's silent price hike, I wonder whether many would have chosen to skip Office 97. But almost no software vendor lets you even look at a software license until after you purchase the product.

The terms of some software licenses would be funny if they weren't so sad. One product's license states that by using the software, you are agreeing not to write a review of the product in a magazine without the permission of the product's vendor. Would you buy software if it appeared that the vendor tried to precensor reviews of it? (Does the vendor want to hide something about the product?) Of course you wouldn't. Vendors wouldn't dare make such ridiculous statements in a document that consumers could see presale. Now postsale—that's a different story. After consumers purchase the product, very few will go to the trouble to return it because of an irritating clause in the license.

Keeping people informed of license clauses before the sale isn't just the vendor's job, however; it's also the media's job. Part of the reason that no one knew about Office 97's price increase is that PC journalists like me failed to notice and report it. That won't happen again: I promise to keep an eye out for changes in Office 2000's licensing. To make sure consumers are aware of changes to a product's license between versions, however, vendors need to post new licenses on their Web sites so that prospective buyers can peruse them and know exactly what they're considering buying.