Terms of Service TL;DR

This week saw an echo of praise around the tech community for photography website 500px’s approach to its Terms of Service page.

The basic idea being that the left column contains the verbose legal terms while the right column holds a brief layman’s translation. What I find worry is the vast number of web professionals who think this is a good idea and a great user-friendly design. It’s not!

Start by considering 500px’s introduction to their ToS:

You may only create an account after reading and accepting these terms. The column on the right provides a short explanation of the terms of use and is not legally binding.

If you want to use this service you have to read and accept the full version. This approach makes for an even longer read than normal — brevity here is a trick. Now consider 500px co-founder Evgeny Tchebotarev’s response to this praise:

While it’s not legally binding and doesn’t tell everything that is on the left side of the terms, it sums up things that we believe are important to photographers.

Tchebotarev emphasises that the brief version does not contain everything and he reiterates that it is not legally binding. As a fellow creative and web professional I have respect for my peers, this is an industry in which moral ethics are strong. I have no reason to doubt 500px’s good intentions but this approach is disingenuous. If you sign up to a social network — or any website supported by user-generated content — the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy are designed to do several things to the full extent of the law:

  • Minimise liability of the service provider.
  • Maximise responsibility of the user.
  • Take full rights to the users data.

I don’t pretend this practice isn’t messed up, law is fucked up, but it exists and in fairness to 500px it’s very difficult to operate a website without it. Here’s one of 500px’s killer lines:

By posting Content to the Site you hereby grant to 500px a non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to use, distribute, reproduce, modify, adapt, publicly perform and publicly display such Content in connection with the Services.

This and many other points apparently translate to two simple notions:

Your photos will preserve whatever copyright they had before uploading to this site. We will protect the copyright and will not sell your photos without your permission.

Remember, the brief version is not “legally binding” and therefore irrelevant to the ToS. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but in reality a user is in fact giving 500px license to effectively do anything they like. This includes selling their photos (permission is given by accepting the ToS). Naturally a user retains copyright, but they’ve also agreed to the world’s most one-sided license agreement ever conceived. Almost every single website you sign up to has a similar catch-all agreement.

Do you see the problem here? Nobody reads these things. Tchebotarev himself admits, “I rarely read terms of use”. Providing a brief version that completely glosses over reality is only going to exasperate user concerns later on. If a service provider wants us to trust their ethics why are they so adverse to actually reflecting them in their terms?

Best intentions aside, this practice can only confuse the user more. Now instead of reading nothing users are only going to read the nice-but-useless version. And that, ultimately, is even more bullshit than the original. On the plus side it does shine some light on the founders morals if we choose to trust what we read. Because when you really read a website’s Terms of Service, trust is all you have.

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