7 tools for cutting through software legalese

EULAs got your eyes swimming? Head spinning from open source licensing terminology? These resources help you get the straight dope

7 tools for cutting through software legalese
Credit: cogdogblog

Does anyone, aside from the lawyers out there, enjoy wading through the minutiae of software licenses, be they EULAs (end-user licensing agreements) or open source licenses? Nope. We just want to open an account or get stuff installed, and get running.

Sadly, there's no way to flat-out ignore software licensing. Like visits to the dentist, it's something that has to be confronted eventually -- after all, nobody enjoys either gum disease or lawsuits. But nothing says you have to go it alone.

Here's a collection of resources -- websites, software, and print -- that help untangle the Gordian-knot language and legal arcana found in common software licenses. Note that these offerings typically come with a disclaimer that they do not constitute legal advice; for the real lowdown, you're always best off having a lawyer handy.

Terms of Service: Didn't Read

Nobody reads the terms of service for software, and they definitely don't read the ToS for websites. That's bad enough when it's a consumer-oriented site like Facebook, but it's far worse when it's a site with some degree of professional users (LinkedIn, GitHub, et al.).

Terms of Service: Didn't Read provides a list of common services, with ratings for the clarity and quality of the ToS on each one. Potentially problematic terms in a given ToS, such as indemnification of the service or the right of the service to change its terms at any time without notice, are spelled out in plain English. The site also offers a browser add-on to provide you with notifications about sites you visit if they're in ToS:DR's database.

TLDR Legal

Think of TLDR Legal as a search engine for code and software licenses, EULAs, and ToSes. Type the name of a piece of software or a service, and you're provided with a clear and concise summary of what you can, can't, and must do in each case. For EULAs, there's a plain-English breakdown of the major points of the EULA in one column, with the original EULA text in another. (This also works as a training mechanism: Read enough such side-by-side analyses, and it gets easier to parse EULAs on your own.)

TLDR Legal's database is an ongoing project, so not everything is covered in full detail. For instance, while the terms of the YouTube Partner Program are in the database, they haven't yet been summarized or analyzed, although the terms for YouTube itself do have an analysis. 

Best feature: Each analysis has a change history associated with it, so you can see how the analysis has changed over time.

Choose A License

If you're about to release a piece of software as open source, Choose A License helps you cut through the legalese and pick a software license that best fits your aims.

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.

Andrew M. St. Laurent's Understanding Open Source and Free Software Licensing was originally published by O'Reilly in 2004, but the vast majority of it remains relevant and timely. The best part, though, is that it's available free from O'Reilly's website, so it costs nothing to download a copy and educate yourself.

Finally, the quality of titles in Wikibooks may be wildly erratic, but the FOSS Licensing text, contributed by the International Open Source Network, provides a good overview of the subject, although it's relatively brief and again most of its details are U.S.-centric.