Human-readable legalese

One the of the many things I spend a lot of time thinking about is how to present necessarily detailed legal text in a more accessible format, perhaps even in a way that a reader would want to read the text. I came across a story in The Daily yesterday about an attempt to do just that and which appeals to me. Gregg Bernstein is a graphic designer and he took on the challenge of redesigning Apple’s 4 137 word iTunes Software License Agreement with a view to making it more accessible for his Master’s thesis. The central challenge is one we are all familiar with:

There’s a reason TOS disclaimers are called “click-through” agreements; we hardly ever stop to read them. Why would we? They’re crammed with dense, confusing legal jargon; they’re devoid of niceties like a table of contents, bullet points or a typographic hierarchy — all of which suggests you’re not actually expected to read them.

“You wouldn’t buy a car from a salesman who speaks in double-talk and hands you an unreadable contract,” says Bernstein. “So why do we accept it from software companies?”

Bernstein teamed up with law professor Robert Bartlett who parsed the iTunes agreement and reduced it to 381 words of salient points and terms. Bernstein then applied text and paragraph formatting to the resulting text to create a “human-readable” version of the iTunes agreement. The difference between the two documents is visually dramatic:

Bernstein’s take on the iTunes agreement isn’t new. Creative Commons licenses have had 3 basic formats for quite some time now. Take the license I applied to this site as an example. It is a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 South Africa license. When you click on the license link you are presented with the Commons Deed, a human-readable summary of the license, that looks like this:

Creative Commons — Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 South Africa — CC BY-SA 2_5

The Legal Code version of this license is what you may expect. It is a lot more complex, text heavy and has its fair share of legalese:

Creative Commons — Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 South Africa — CC BY-SA 2_5 - Legal Code

The Commons Deed is not a complete representation of the Legal Code. As its disclaimer points out:

The Commons Deed is not a license. It is simply a handy reference for understanding the Legal Code (the full license) — it is a human-readable expression of some of its key terms. Think of it as the user-friendly interface to the Legal Code beneath. This Deed itself has no legal value, and its contents do not appear in the actual license.

Creative Commons is not a law firm and does not provide legal services. Distributing of, displaying of, or linking to this Commons Deed does not create an attorney-client relationship.

It does serve a valuable purpose, though. It gives readers a sufficient overview of the license’s salient points that readers have a better idea of what they are agreeing to and how they may use this content. Unfortunately, and what many people don’t realize, all that text in the Legal Code is important. It is inconvenient to have to plough through so much text and legalese but the legal frameworks governing licenses and software use, for example, are pretty complex and so are the legal considerations affecting them.

Bernstein’s model goes a little further than the Creative Commons approach in that it attempts to bridge the gap between the Commons Deed and the Legal Code with a variation of the iTunes agreement which could probably suffice as an agreement in its own right, even though it omits over a 1 000 words from the original text. The model is even more interesting because it incorporates an interface where readers can signify their agreement to the terms by adding their initials. This is better than the classic “I agree” button click because it includes a personal signature of sorts in the form of the reader’s initials. That personalizes the consent to the terms and theoretically associates it with a specific person.

The Consumer Protection Act requires that agreements be in plain language. The language used is only part of the mix, though. At least it should only be part of the general requirement. Legal drafters should be looking for ways to make their documents more visually accessible too and these two examples are terrific ways to do that.

Published by Paul Jacobson

Enthusiast, writer, Happiness Engineer at @automattic. I take photos too. Passionate about my wife, Gina and #proudDad.

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