Selling your Soul, and Other Fine Print

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DevilDid you sell your soul?

In 2010 the British game retailer GameStation revealed that it legally owned the souls of thousands of its customers.

If you went on their website to order software on a particular day, you had to click one of those “I accept” buttons on the screen under their contract before you could make your purchase. The contract looked like the usual fine print, and as we all know, most people don’t bother to read that stuff.  

But this language was in it (edited ever so slightly):

“By placing an order via this Web site . . .  you agree to grant Us a non-transferable option to claim, for now and forever more, your immortal soul.  Should We wish to exercise this option, you agree to surrender your immortal soul and any claim you may have on it, within five working days of receiving written notification from or one of its duly authorized minions.”

They went on:

“We reserve the right to serve such notice in six foot high letters of fire. However we can accept no liability for any loss or damage caused by such act if you (a) do not believe you have an immortal soul, (b) have already given it to another party.

If you do not wish to grant Us such a license, please click the link below to nullify this sub-clause and proceed with your transaction.”

As you probably guessed, close to 90% of the customers missed the chance to click the opt-out box. Those who did received a £5 coupon . . . and an explanation: this was just an April Fool’s Day joke.

This brings home two facts of life.  First, very few people read the contract before hitting the “I agree” button that’s the gateway for virtually every computer program. Second, companies can put almost anything in an online contract because they know that most consumers won’t read what they put in. 

In 1523, the term caveat emptor first appeared: “buyer beware.” Back then, nothing in writing protected the buyer. Then consumer protection started, in written warranties and laws. 

Now the pendulum has swung back; it’s caveat emptor again. But instead of having nothing in writing to protect you, there’s too much: an avalanche of words which exclude and disclaim responsibility. Click “agree” or be gone. 

An intrepid (defined: characterized by fearlessness, fortitude, and endurance) law professor at University of Richmond Law School, James Gibson, went where no person had gone before. He did an empirical analysis of the contract words he encountered as he set up four new, commonly-available, standard computers.  (Okay, a Dell, an HP, an Acer and a Toshiba.)

He found that cranking up each computer involved (on average) 25 binding contracts which contained 74,897 words. He wrote “To put this in perspective, it’s just a tad fewer words than in the first Harry Potter book.”

And 90% of these words dealt with programs revealed to him only after he booted up each computer for the first time. 

It’s not just a hardware issue.  Do you use PayPal? You agreed to a contract that’s 50,000 words long. Hamlet, Shakespeare’s longest play, is only about 30,000 words.

Really, what are those manufacturers and software companies trying to protect? Probably the same thing that P.C Magazine columnist John Dvorak conveyed with these 58 words of an “ideal” End User License Agreement:

“We are under no obligation to do anything, ever, and you agree to not sue us or complain under any circumstances or else you cannot legally use our software. The software is for use on only one machine by one person, ever, and cannot be resold. If the software does not work, that is not our responsibility, either.”

There’s no moral here, no lawyerly advice. Just be aware of what you’re doing the next time you’re tempted to click the “I agree” button without reading the 74,000-or-however-many words above it. 

Yes, it’s boring. But chances are great that you’ll bear the consequences if something goes wrong. Maybe be daring: at least skim through it. (Keep an eye out for the words “Immortal soul,” in particular.) 

A Footnote: GameStation is out of business. Maybe it was Divine Intervention.