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Websites that Attempt to Decipher the Legalese?

Cliff posted more than 10 years ago | from the cutting-through-the-language dept.

The Courts 22

mzuckerm asks: "I am currently a law student doing some work with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Specifically I am working on a project called the Collaborator's Clinic, which provides resources for the open source community. I am currently trying to gather sample legal documents (including linking agreements, patent licenses, software development agreements, etc., you can look at the work in progress here) in order to annotate them with common sense descriptions of what the legalese means. This is very much like what the Berkman Center has done with the Chilling Effects web site (which deals with legal issues involved in cease-and-desist letters). Has this been done anywhere before? I have done a google search to try to find other sites including this information, but none I've found have included the information for free or directed it towards the Open Source community. Any help would be greatly appreciated. Also, if you are aware of any relevant licenses or legal agreements to which we could obtain the right to post and annotate, that would also be totally rad."

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Are you doing it with BSD? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#7216206)

Because BSD is dead! Frist psot, bitches!

none so far (2, Informative)

stonebeat.org (562495) | more than 10 years ago | (#7216328)

i haven't seen any site that does that. have you checked our the creative commons website? they made all the legalese very easy to comprehend... http://www.creativecommons.org/license/ and http://creativecommons.org/learn/licenses/ . There comics, and animated make the CC licensing very easy to comprehend and use.

Dont break the law in the first place, GNU hippies (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#7216332)

Pay for the music you own, don't reverse-engineer quality software products, consult Microsoft and SCO on your compliance with the operating system CDs, and don't break the law in the first place. Lawyers are expensive.

I'm disappointed (2, Funny)

chriso11 (254041) | more than 10 years ago | (#7216370)

I was hoping for something like bablefish, only with a legalese option. THAT would be useful

Re:I'm disappointed (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#7217134)

I was hoping for something like bablefish, only with a legalese option.

Simple enough... just return a static page that says:

w3 0wNz j00!

(Bonus credit: Patent your implementation and sue someone for infringement.)

(Extra secret double bonus credit: Make that "someone" SCO.)

Why can't people just use common english in EULAs? (1)

Ark42 (522144) | more than 10 years ago | (#7216747)

Would it not be legally binding if you didn't write a document that only a lawyer could understand or something?
Despite the fact that English can be made to be ambiguous, couldn't you just put a disclaimer saying that you, the software publisher or whatever, get to resolve any ambiguity somebody may decide to find in your normal-english legal agreement?

Re:Why can't people just use common english in EUL (1)

perlchild (582235) | more than 10 years ago | (#7217071)

I'm not a lawyer myself, but the local law here doesn't state anything about legalese being a condition of law.

An ambiguous law would be stricken down however, as that would be contrary to the interests of the whole judicial system as a whole.

However, law being like most fields, if you say something in an unambiguous manner to a lawyer, you're using legalese.

Just like you can't speak about object-oriented programming clearly, without making distinctions between say multiple and single inheritance(and the layman would say "Inheritance?").


Any unambiguous specialized discourse is undistinguishable from Jargon.

Re:Why can't people just use common english in EUL (1)

{8_8} (31689) | more than 10 years ago | (#7217355)

Disclaimer: I am n00b second-year law student.

Part of the reason for legalese is that certain words used in particular combinations have legal effect, whereas other do not. One example involves conveyances where people say "I give my iPod to A and his heirs." The words "and his heirs" have the legal effect of a fee simple conveyance, which essentially means that A is given the iPod without being subject to any outside obligations or interests. The average person would interpret "and his heirs" to somehow involve A's heirs in the conveyance, which is almost completely wrong. A's heirs have no claim on the watch unless A dies intestate or A somehow gives his heirs a claim.

You're right, binding contracts can be made in plain english. However, it's the number of times that people have gone to court and won over the phrase "I'll give you X if you do Y" is rather scary, given how simple the phrase is. Even that simple phrase can get rather messy once various legal theories are involved. Using plain english in a legal agreement is just asking for trouble because, as you noted above, even plain english can be made to be ambiguous. If you asked me whether I'd want my multi-million dollar IP protected by a (somewhat)bulletproof legalese agreement or a variant of "You can't use this product badly or rip my IP off by reverse-engineering it", I'd probably go with the legalese.

Re:Why can't people just use common english in EUL (1)

YrWrstNtmr (564987) | more than 10 years ago | (#7220297)

Because the EULA is not for your benefit, but for theirs. If it were in plain English, the average user might actually be cognizant of the actual restrictions of what he is agreeing to, and then not do it.

Couched in legalese, you probably won't notice that the average EULA gives you, the consumer, no rights whatsoever, and protects the vendor from any action on your part.

Re:Why can't people just use common english in EUL (1)

faster (21765) | more than 10 years ago | (#7221332)

Lawyers can write clear english documents; my attorney (Steve Schneider in Los Gatos, CA) does, and he also explains the chunks of legalese that are required in some documents (by tradition as well as other factors) clearly. (I get nothing for this; he charges me the same ridiculous Silicon Valley rates that he charges everyone else)

I was told by a law student once (so take this with a boulder of salt) that a judge will usually enforce the intent of a layman's contract, if the intent is clear. So to write a binding non-legalese contract, give clear examples of the kinds of things you want to make your intent clear.

They could. They chooose not to. (1)

cribcage (205308) | more than 10 years ago | (#7226818)

Would it not be legally binding if you didn't write a document that only a lawyer could understand or something?
Of course it would. In fact, there's been a sizable movement [amazon.com] in recent years, to clean up and sharpen legal writing. Communicating using simpler terms would help reduce misunderstandings and misinterpretations, which occur with alarming frequency in the US legal system. It would also speed up the process and efficiency in our courts, which would be a serious benefit for a legal system which is (pardon the pun) criminally overcrowded. And imagine a society where the average citizen could [gasp] read and understand the criminal laws!!

So what's the down side? Why is it even a question?

Money. Simply put, lawyers can command gargantuan fees from their clients because, when a client reads a motion or a brief prepared for his case, he is confounded by a wall of arcane jargon, and immediately thinks, "I'm getting my money's worth, because I could never have prepared this document." Contrast that with a client who reads a few documents written in plain English, who thinks, "Well, hell...I could have written this myself!!"

Of course, it's not that simple. Just because a layperson can read a plain-language legal document doesn't mean that he could have prepared it. He may not know what facts to include, what facts to avoid, etc. It's the old joke about the carpenter charging ten cents for hitting the nail, and fifteen dollars for knowing where to hit. But appearance and perception are what matter most, in our society. And if a lawyer's documents are shrouded in mysterious language, then his large fees seem justified, more so than if he's simply churning out documents everyone can comprehend on first reading.

(Furthermore, it's cyclical. The plaintiff hires an expensive attorney to write a confusing document...and the defendant is promptly forced to hire his own expensive attorney, to interpret the document! 'Round and 'round they go...)


Re:Why can't people just use common english in EUL (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#7245981)

Lawyers rarely use old English anymore, which is what many think of as legaleze. Nowadays, most of the words and phrases used in legal contracts can be quite easily understood if you really think about it and try to comprehend it.

I've written many IP Licensing and other misc trademark agreements. Lawyers have an obligation to "lock-up" contracts in favor of their client, or they could be subject to malpractice lawsuits. If you write simple contracts (1-2 paragraphs), then it will undoubtedly be easy to get out of if you have a smart lawyer. If it's easy for others to get out of it, you are a crappy lawyer and your client may be able to sue you (just like clients always sue doctors, lawyers should be sued too).

For example, what law the contract is governed by, who represents to be able to do the jobs, if late payments are a breach of contract does that mean you can breach a contract and the contract is invalid? There are tons of issues like that in a contract where, if not addressed, you will have a hard to enforce contract.

So look at legaleze as protecting you because it does!

Sample Document links... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#7216750)

Just an aside. Great site, but can you fix the links on the sample documents? I'd really like to see what you have there!


Interesting idea, but... (1)

Oddly_Drac (625066) | more than 10 years ago | (#7217808)

Firstly some of your links are broken because you're supplying internal dns for 'h20dev' and the rest of the internet doesn't know what that's about.

I'm interested in it as a project having waded through legal documents before, but it seems to me that these things are highly individual, except for structure, so it might be better to go back to the 'root' boilerplate or structure documents rather than using real world examples that people may or may not like you using.

Nice effort, though. I like it.

WANLB (We are not lawyers but...) (2, Funny)

Valar (167606) | more than 10 years ago | (#7218080)

As far as attempting to decipher the legalese, you've come to the right place. As far as sucessfully deciphering the legalese... Can't help you.

Legalese (1)

Horny Smurf (590916) | more than 10 years ago | (#7219709)

Having taken a couple business law college courses, I wonder if you really thought this out.

Legalese isn't hard, but it does require knowing some legal principles that aren't always obvious (speccifically, you'll need to cover contract law and UCC before looking at licensing).

Keep in mind law school is 4 years of graduate school. So is medical school. You canset up some wiki definitions, but you'll probably leanr just as much from watching mattlock or ER.

Re:Legalese (1)

the argonaut (676260) | more than 10 years ago | (#7227160)

Actually law school is only 3 years...can't speak for med school though. Being nitpicky...

No joke about the UCC and contract law: in my short law school career so far (1st Year), contract is by far the most incomprehensible body of law, and the UCC and its derivatives are the most poorly written and difficult statutes (what's worse than a law written by lawyers and lobbyists? a law written by law professors...).

Tie me down and subject me to endless hours of torts, civil procedure or constitutional law if you want...but please, no more expectation, reliance, or restitution...

The legalese is unnecessary. (1)

bill_mcgonigle (4333) | more than 10 years ago | (#7221652)

One thing EBay does right is their user agreement [ebay.com]. [annoying javascript lurks]. It's easy to understand and presumably is legally valid.

The distinction is that EBay wants people to understand their user agreement. Conversely, obtuse user agreements are that way for a reason.

EULAs (1)

joeljkp (254783) | more than 10 years ago | (#7223296)

I've thought about doing this with EULAs, but haven't gotten very far yet. Either a "Gallery of Dumb EULAs" or an "English Explanation of EULAs".

Well, here's a plain English (even FUN) one (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#7223885)

Here's a "Terms of Use" (terms of service) agreement [oxo.com] from the good folks at OXO [oxo.com].
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