Surprise, surprise… but it did very much dumbfound me to learn my client’s opinion of the wording I had proposed in a license clause. All the more, since they are developers and can tell the difference between source and object (machine) code, and know much more about, say, the ISA (instruction set architecture) or a wide range of languages used to instruct a computer than I ever will.

And it is not really about respect for or trust in our expertise as regards the field of law, on the one hand, and the field of programming – on the other. Rather, this sense of surprise informs a somewhat trying notion that we, lawyers, should square the circle – by employing a user-friendly language which affords maximum legal protection. At least in the case of license terms.

The software license terms are pretty much standard and similar across computer programs in that they use legalese, are concise, and prohibit almost everything save, maybe, use (mere running) of the program in question. The reason they are so expressed is that, when the terms eventually come into play, they draw the attention of lawyers retained by parties in dispute or, worse still, court hearing a copyright infringement case. I could concede that legalese may look to a developer like machine code to John Doe, or seem a tad too sophisticated to be user-friendly; but I would offer an instant justification, explaining that this is so because the judgment is to be entered by a very specific system (judicature), whose ISA dictates that the terms be in formal (statute-inspired) language. Likewise, I could concede that the license terms’ syntax and semantics feel nothing like rich and dense narratives from anybody’s favorite novel, but if a developer wants our legal source code to be published, they should remember that most lawyers do not subscribe to the FOSS idea of a (legal) sort.

Perhaps the way to satisfy different needs of different stakeholders would be to let the license terms use the traditional language but append a simplistic non-binding figure (diagram) for illustrative or explanatory purposes. As for human-readable form of the terms, I dare say that the grant of rights should be defined in the user-friendly way by developers (program owners) themselves in their private communication with lawyers; only then the lawyers may perform their systemic job of a (de-)compiler and library of legal functions, ready to be called upon where needed.

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