A lesson in Office licensing

Here's a hypothetical scenario: your postman has just delivered a package containing your latest online purchase, a copy of Microsoft Office. Suddenly, up pops a message asking you to read and agree to the Microsoft EULA (end user licence agreement) before the installation can proceed. On a whim, you decide to read every word -- there's got to be a first time for everything -- and off you go.

Delving deep into the small print, you come across something you don't like the look of -- let's say it's the clause reading "you may not copy or post any templates available through internet-based services on any network computer or broadcast it in any media".

Now that's a problem. You were planning to upload some of the Excel templates to your website. You decide you can't agree to this condition, so you check 'I do not agree'. The installer promptly stops and there you are with over £400 (AUD$998) of software you can't use. No worries, you'll simply return it to the retailer for a refund. After all, consumer law says you can return goods purchased online within seven days of delivery for a full refund. You don't even have to give a reason. You contact the supplier by email, only to be told that you can't send anything back -- they don't do refunds on opened software packs.

I put this scenario to Microsoft's U.K. press office, which escalated the problem to the U.S. But Microsoft HQ still felt unable to comment. Now I have a feeling I've asked a question nobody wants to answer. It's true that Microsoft doesn't have a contract with the end user -- not one that can be covered by U.K. consumer law anyway -- and so the retailer is responsible for product returns. And it's true that the EULAs are on the web, so people can read them before making a purchase. But that's not the point. You're buying a hard copy of a product.

I spoke to a senior IT lawyer -- one who specializes in this sort of thing -- and he said: "Normally the question of the shrink terms is the other way round. Microsoft, or whoever, trying to find reasons that there is an effective contract between the software company and the customer, so the software company can impose its terms, be that limitations, exclusions of liability, licence scope and so forth. Here we have it the other way. 'Cake and eat it' springs to mind."

My answer to this is simple. I've suggested to Microsoft that it prints the essential points from the EULA on the back of the software box with a clear warning that "your use of this software is governed by the terms and conditions mentioned above. If you are not prepared to be bound by all of these, please do not buy the software".

Will the company take my advice? Time will tell. But in the meantime, don't make the mistake of thinking you'll automatically get a refund for the software you bought in good faith. And read through EULAs on the web before you buy expensive software -- it could save you a fortune.

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