Reading the Windows Vista license is a bit like preparing for breakfast with Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen: You should be ready to believe at least six impossible things about what users want from software.
It is unlikely that a home user looking for a computer operating system has any of these “features” of the Vista EULA in mind:
- Self-limiting software
- Vanishing functionality through invalidation
- Removal of media capabilities
- Problem-solving prohibited
- Limited mobility
- One transfer only
and a bonus,
- Restrictions on your rights to use MPEG-4 video
Details below. While Microsoft should be commended for putting its license into plain English, that doesn’t help to make the license restrictions any more palatable. Quoted italicized language comes from the Vista license.
1. Self-limiting software, or Mandatory Activation. “Your right to use the software after the time specified in the installation process is limited unless it is activated. You will not be able to continue using the software after that time if you do not activate it.” Moreover, “[s]ome changes to your computer components or the software may require you to reactivate the software.” In order to use Microsoft Vista, you must consent to communication to Microsoft of information about the software and the device on which you have installed it. If you don’t do so in time, your software will begin to degrade in function.
2. Vanishing functionality through invalidation. “The software will from time to time validate the software, update or require download of the validation feature of the software. [if validation fails] you may not be able to use or continue to use some of the features of the software.” Again, your computer must make periodic (period unspecified) contact with the Microsoft mothership if you want to continue to enjoy what you thought you paid for. Microsoft, of course, disclaims any liability for the consequences if their servers fail or mistakenly deny you validation.
3. Removal of media capabilities. “When you download licenses for protected content, you agree that Microsoft may include a revocation list with the licenses.” “[C]ontent owners may ask Microsoft to revoke the software’s ability to use WMDRM [Windows Media digital rights management] to play or copy protected content.” In other words, one movie or music file may take away your ability to play another, if the content owner (not the computer owner) chooses to cut back the Windows Media Player’s features. Don’t like the reports that Creative is removing radio recording functions from its MP3 players, under music industry pressure? Prepare for that kind of feature flux to be routine in Vista — you’ve agreed to it in the license.
4. Problem-solving prohibited. “You may not work around any technical limitations in the software.” Microsoft might be referring to anticircumvention of technical protection measures here, but since it’s often hard to tell the difference, from the user’s perspective, between a TPM and a bug, this reads as a prohibition on user debugging and problem-solving. After all, down-rezzing HD content or refusing to allow users to copy quotes from an e-book don’t strike most people as wanted features. Can you work around a document’s failure to save properly?
5. Limited mobility. “The first user of the software may reassign the license to another device one time.” If you upgrade your machines more frequently than you care to change operating systems, you’ll just have to pay again. Don’t worry about this applying too frequently, though, because most OEMs will probably keep bundling Windows with their hardware, thanks to Microsoft’s pricing encouragement, and Microsoft won’t offer refunds if you don’t like the terms on those OEM bundles.
6. One transfer only. “The first user of the software may make a one time transfer of the software, and this agreement, directly to a third party . [T]he other party must agree that this agreement applies to the transfer and use of the software.” You can give your old computer to Dad, but if he wants to give his older computer to the neighborhood community center, they’ll have to find their own operating system (may I recommend Ubuntu?).
Bonus. MPEG-4 Visual Standard
NOTICE ABOUT THE MPEG-4 VISUAL STANDARD. This software includes MPEG-4 visual decoding technology. MPEG LA, L.L.C. requires this notice:
USE OF THIS PRODUCT IN ANY MANNER THAT COMPLIES WITH THE MPEG-4 VISUAL STANDARD IS PROHIBITED, EXCEPT FOR USE DIRECTLY RELATED TO (A) DATA OR INFORMATION (i) GENERATED BY AND OBTAINED WITHOUT CHARGE FROM A CONSUMER NOT THEREBY ENGAGED IN A BUSINESS ENTERPRISE, AND (ii) FOR PERSONAL USE ONLY; AND (B) OTHER USES SPECIFICALLY AND SEPARATELY LICENSED BY MPEG LA, L.L.C.
Users never asked for these impossible limitations. Microsoft decided unilaterally to add them, claiming it could abrogate personal ownership, fair use, and first sale rights because “The software is licensed, not sold.” If Microsoft faced real market competition on the home desktop, users could vote with their wallets, but anticompetitive practices and network effects make Microsoft a like-it-or-not proposition for most users.
While Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty might have been able to choose the meanings of his words at will, on this side of the looking glass, software vendors shouldn’t be able to redefine the meaning of “buying software” by the simple attachment of a click-wrap license.
Public domain Tenniel images (1872) from The Victorian Web.