Terms of Service

Commonly abbreviated as ToS, it contains important agreements between users and service providers but is often neglected.

A key usability problem for websites is the complexity of their terms and conditions. Within the HCI community, attention to this issue to date has primarily focused on privacy policies. However, with so many people posting everything from status updates to digital art online, intellectual property rights are also increasingly important to the end user. We analyzed the copyright licenses contained in the Terms of Service of 30 different websites where users share creative work. Then, we conducted a survey of 410 Mechanical Turk users to match expectations and opinions about these copyright terms to the reality. We found that accuracy, expectations, and opinions vary greatly by licensing term, and that there are also differences based on the type of website. We argue that users are lacking critical information, and that in both creating and explaining these licenses, site designers should take into account their specific community of content creators.

  • The average reading level for a TOS is that of a college sophomore.
  • The average word count is nearly 4,000 words.
  • It would take the average adult almost 8 hours to read the TOS for 30 websites.
  • Non-exclusive license: The user can also post/use this content elsewhere.
  • Worldwide license: The license does not have any geographic restrictions as to where it is valid.
  • Royalty-free license: The website does not have to pay the user royalties for their content.
  • Perpetual license: The license does not expire.
  • Transferrable/sublicensable license: The website s permitted to transfer this license or license the content to another party.
  • Irrevocable license: The user cannot terminate the license once agreed to.
  • Right to modify or transform: The website can modify the user’s content (which could range from formatting changes to derivative works).
  • Right to create backups: The website can make copies of the content for the purpose of backups.
  • Right to use commercially: The website can make commercial use of the content, including selling or profiting from.
  • Right to use in advertising: The website can use the content in advertisements.
  • Right to display: The website can display the content (a necessary attribute to show the content on the site itself).
  • Copyright licensing terms differ wildly across websites—you can’t assume you know what they are.
  • Even if people did read them (which they don’t), they likely wouldn’t understand them.
  • There are some licensing terms that are both unexpected and unwelcome.
  • Terms of Service are not one-size-fits-all: community matters. People have different opinions about what terms should be on different types of websites.
  • Tip for website designers: Provide plain language explanations for your copyright terms, not only what you can do with content, but what you mean to do with it.
  • Tip for website designers: Take your specific community of users into account when crafting copyright policies. Find out what their established norms are about copyright.