Teen's website uses plain English to explain complex software licenses

Teen's website uses plain English to explain complex software licenses

Let's face it -- the complexity of the average software license agreement has gotten way out of hand. EULAs for major applications and terms of service for popular Web services, all too often, are roughly the length of "Paradise Lost."

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Users can hardly be blamed for simply scrolling to the bottom and clicking "accept," but that blase attitude can have consequences. Licensing terms are getting increasingly strict, and users could find themselves in trouble without realizing they've done anything wrong. For developers, the process is even more tortuous -- which code can come from where? And under what restrictions?

Fortunately, the new website TLDRLegal aims to make things easier and safer for the fine-print phobic. Its goal is to collect details on software license agreements and translate them into easy-to-understand terminology. Developers can submit their license agreements for inclusion on TLDRLegal and provide a link to the site and its simplified summary in lieu of the usual wall of text.

Meet the developer

Kevin Wang had had enough of combing the fine print. The 17-year-old graduate of the Illinois Math and Science Academy has been working with computers since the fifth grade, having quickly fallen in love with game design. He's currently working at Excelerate Labs -- "It's similar to YCombinator," he says -- and plans to attend UC Berkeley for computer science in the fall.

"Through my adventures in software development, I had to read so many licenses, it was ridiculous. I had to parse and take notes on all of them, and it was a really big hassle," he says. This gave him the idea for the website which officially launched today.

It was a surprise to find that such a resource wasn't already out there. "I assumed that it had to exist, just because I needed it so much," Wang says.

Currently, the site only has details on 31 common licenses, including Apache, GNU and BSD. Wang says, however, that he plans to add more information as quickly as possible, including terms of service for popular websites like Flickr.

"I'm planning on including some of the most popular closed-source [software licenses] too," he adds.

Wang says he doesn't currently have plans to monetize the site, though he didn't rule it out for the long-term.

"This is hosted on the cloud, and it's actually pretty expensive. So I'm hoping I can make enough money through donations just to pay for the server costs and the hosting and everything. But if not, I'll put ads on there and I'll try to minimize it so it's not very intrusive," he says.


TLDRLegal is similar in concept to the Electronic Frontier Foundation's TOSBack project, which was set up to provide an up-to-the-minute look at the official terms of service for 56 popular websites. However, TOSBack appears not to have been updated since mid-2011, and a notice at the top of the page says that it's still under construction.

Deutsche Telekom is also working on a project called OS LiC, or the Open Source License Compendium. Hosted on Github, OS LiC is also trying to collate open-source licensing information into a single, comprehensive database.

Email Jon Gold at and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.

Read more about software in Network World's Software section.

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