UK group: licensing is misleading consumers

Consumer body asks for investigation

The National Consumer Council (NCC), a British consumer advocacy group, is alleging that several major software companies engage in misleading and unfair practices related to end-user licence agreements, and has asked the UK's Office of Fair Trading (OFT) to investgate.

"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 council said in a statment earlier this month.

The NCC says 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 licence 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 says.

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 says.

The NCC wants vendors to provide information about the licence 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 licence agreements under the Consumer Sales and Sales Guarantees directives.

One analyst based in the UK 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 says. "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 Adobe, could not immediately be reached for comment. Microsoft had no comment on the report.

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