U.K. group: Software licensing is misleading consumers

A British consumer advocacy group wants an investigation of 17 software companies for "misleading" end-user license agreements.

A British consumer advocacy group is charging that Microsoft and other major software companies engage in misleading and unfair practices related to end-user license agreements (EULAs), and has asked for an investigation by the U.K.'s Office of Fair Trading (OFT).

"New NCC research reveals that software rights-holders are shifting the legal burden onto consumers who buy computer programmes, leaving them with less protection than when they buy a cheap biro," the National Consumer Council said in a statement Tuesday.

The NCC said it has asked the OFT to investigate "the potentially unfair contract terms" of the following 17 companies: Microsoft, Adobe, Apple, Chief Architect, Symantec, Magix, Nero, Corel, Sega, Nova Development, Britannica, Sonic Solutions, Twelve Tone Systems, THQ, GSP, McAfee and Kaspersky.

The group studied 25 software products, including Office 2007, Corel WordPerfect Office X3 and Adobe Photoshop CS 2, for its report, "Whose Licence Is It Anyway?"

Fourteen of the 25 products the group studied did not mention on the packaging that users must accept a license agreement when installing the software, according to NCC. Of those that did, only four provided a URL to a copy of the agreement, NCC's report said.

Furthermore, the agreements are often delivered in hard-to-read, jargon-ridden formats that make it difficult for consumers to fully grasp their rights and responsibilities, the group said.

The NCC wants vendors to provide information about the license and the terms of the agreement "at a stage before a decision to purchase has been made," and in plain English. It is also asking the European Commission to include digital contracts and license agreements under the Consumer Sales and Sales Guarantees directives.

One analyst based in the U.K. predicted the NCC's demands will prompt some type of response. "The NCC has had some notable successes lately, particularly in the area of [digital rights management] and how it hurts consumers," James Governor of Redmonk said via e-mail Tuesday. "There is no reason it should not be successful in calling for an investigation. It's a credible organisation, with a growing reputation for campaigning in the digital arena."

Companies flagged by NCC, including Microsoft and Adobe, could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.

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