Do Users Read License Agreements?

Jeff Sauro, PhD

The short answer is no.

Whether free or paid, use software, and you have to agree to pages of legalese.

So-called End User License Agreements or “EULAs” are ubiquitous.

They are so common, in software and on the web, that many users ignore them and blindly click “Agree” without understanding what they’re agreeing to.

While you probably suspect very few users read the agreement, have you ever wondered what percent of users actually do?

Recently I had the opportunity to examine the log data of a couple thousand users across a few consumer software products. The data came from users who agreed to participate in providing feedback to a large software company. As part of the installation process, as expected, users were presented with an EULA. How many read it before accepting?

Since we’re not actually watching whether users read the agreement, the best proxy to use is the time spent on the EULA screen.

Not surprisingly, most of the 2500 users flew past this page.  The median time users spent on the license page was only 6 seconds! Generating a confidence interval around this sample tells us that we can be 95% sure at least 70% of users spend less than 12 seconds on the license page.

Assuming it takes a minimum of two minutes to read the License Agreement (which itself is fast) we can be 95% confident no more than 8% of users read the License Agreement in full.

Few Users Read the EULA

To be sure the users of this company just weren’t some EULA anomaly,  I looked to corroborate my findings. A recent paper from CHI found that “more than 50% of the users take less than 8 seconds, which is clearly too short to read the entire notice.”

While the authors didn’t estimate the number that read the agreement, their median time on the agreement page was similar to my data and their conclusion was the same: Users don’t read the license agreements.

Why aren’t they read?

Other than the obvious fact that EULAs are long and boring, there’s another good reason they aren’t read.

Why spend a lot of time reading something you have no choice about. “Accept” and “Don’t Accept” don’t count as real choices: if you want to use the software, you HAVE to accept the agreement. Click “Don’t accept,”and the software doesn’t load.

An EULA is basically a contract between you and the license owner (the software company). In many contracts, however, negotiation is allowed, and some terms are negotiable.  Want to negotiate the terms of your next software agreement? Good luck working with those corporate lawyers.

Protecting intellectual property is at the heart of a successful marketplace, so we need laws and agreements to enforce them. But is forcing users to explicitly “Accept” license agreements necessary when there’s no mechanism for negotiation?  The paper I referenced earlier Trained to Accept? A Field Experiment on Consent Dialogs has some ideas about creating a better contractual relationship.

How much time is wasted on EULAs?

Some companies have tried to make the terms in plain language so you have a shot at understanding them.  This of course begs bigger questions about forcing users to “Accept” EULAs in the first place.

After all, we’ve often already purchased the software by the time we see the license agreements, and once the CD is open it’s hard to convince a retailer to get your money back.

While I don’t expect the practice to change anytime soon, I can sure think of better ways of spending those six seconds:

Editorial services courtesy of Marcia Riefer Johnston. See her “Word Power” blog.

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