Usability, Customer Experience & Statistics

Do users read license agreements?

Jeff Sauro • January 11, 2011

The short answer is no.

Whether free or paid, use software, and you have to agree to pages of legalese.

So-called End User License Agreements or "EULAs" are ubiquitous.

They are so common, in software and on the web, that many users ignore them and blindly click "Agree" without understanding what they're agreeing to.

While you probably suspect very few users read the agreement, have you ever wondered what percent of users actually do?

Recently I had the opportunity to examine the log data of a couple thousand users across a few consumer software products. The data came from users who agreed to participate in providing feedback to a large software company. As part of the installation process, as expected, users were presented with an EULA. How many read it before accepting?

Since we're not actually watching whether users read the agreement, the best proxy to use is the time spent on the EULA screen.

Not surprisingly, most of the 2500 users flew past this page.  The median time users spent on the license page was only 6 seconds! Generating a confidence interval around this sample tells us that we can be 95% sure at least 70% of users spend less than 12 seconds on the license page.

Assuming it takes a minimum of two minutes to read the License Agreement (which itself is fast) we can be 95% confident no more than 8% of users read the License Agreement in full.

Few Users Read the EULA

To be sure the users of this company just weren't some EULA anomaly,  I looked to corroborate my findings. A recent paper from CHI found that "more than 50% of the users take less than 8 seconds, which is clearly too short to read the entire notice." 

While the authors didn't estimate the number that read the agreement, their median time on the agreement page was similar to my data and their conclusion was the same: Users don't read the license agreements.

Why aren't they read?

Other than the obvious fact that EULAs are long and boring, there's another good reason they aren't read.

Why spend a lot of time reading something you have no choice about. "Accept" and "Don't Accept" don't count as real choices: if you want to use the software, you HAVE to accept the agreement. Click "Don't accept,"and the software doesn't load.

An EULA is basically a contract between you and the license owner (the software company). In many contracts, however, negotiation is allowed, and some terms are negotiable.  Want to negotiate the terms of your next software agreement? Good luck working with those corporate lawyers.

Protecting intellectual property is at the heart of a successful marketplace, so we need laws and agreements to enforce them. But is forcing users to explicitly "Accept" license agreements necessary when there's no mechanism for negotiation?  The paper I referenced earlier Trained to Accept? A Field Experiment on Consent Dialogs has some ideas about creating a better contractual relationship.

How much time is wasted on EULAs?

Some companies have tried to make the terms in plain language so you have a shot at understanding them.  This of course begs bigger questions about forcing users to "Accept" EULAs in the first place.

After all, we've often already purchased the software by the time we see the license agreements, and once the CD is open it's hard to convince a retailer to get your money back.

While I don't expect the practice to change anytime soon, I can sure think of better ways of spending those six seconds:

Editorial services courtesy of Marcia Riefer Johnston. See her "Word Power" blog.

About Jeff Sauro

Jeff Sauro is the founding principal of MeasuringU, a company providing statistics and usability consulting to Fortune 1000 companies.
He is the author of over 20 journal articles and 5 books on statistics and the user-experience.
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Posted Comments

There are 9 Comments

July 21, 2015 | Alannah Gibney wrote:

Most people lied when they hit the Checkbox for “I Agree To The Terms & Conditions”.

Did we?

Like to be honest, I’ve been using facebook since the beginning of its existence but never it occur to me to carefully read and understand the whole thing about their policies and condition.

Nonetheless that doesn’t mean I did not agree with their terms and conditions, agreements, policies and so on… I just feel professionally and morally sure that never will I violate whatever are on their lists. 

May 31, 2014 | Dan wrote:

EULAs are pretty unfair. Most are written in ways that the average person has trouble understanding (which should be illegal in the first place). All they do is hurt users by forcing them to give up more of their rights, by making them agree to every-single-thing mentioned in it (Sorry, you can't cross out one or two things that you don't like). rnrnMost of them are VERY similar and long, so who wants to bother repeatedly reading stuff that's in all CAPS, boring, depressing and off topic with what they want to accomplish in the first place? Are you really going to spend 20 minutes reading an overdone EULA that seems to be there just to troll you when you're urging to jump into an online game? 

March 8, 2013 | Fabiola wrote:

what I have noticed is that a lot of the time, companies don't *want* you to read the license agreements. They show them in tiny print in a small window that requires constant scrolling to read the next sentence. Lawyers should make them easy to understand so that we know what we are agreeing to. 

March 21, 2012 | EAC wrote:

Is this the result of so many maltreatments and lawsuits in the past?
Or is it just a way to provide lawyers with jobs?
Or is a way to terrorise people and then cause them to think negative thoughts (about themself, the companies, the world, and so on)?

In the end though, people will still go to courts, and the license agreements would not help anyone to harm, both the writer and the reader(or non-reader). Because the courts will penalize whoever they choosed or they were forced to choose. Want to take down a microwave oven company? Just manipulate the court to do it for you, ask them if a microwave oven company is guilty for not putting a direct notice on not to dry a cat using a microwave.

Is this license agreement a new thing? No, it is quite old really. And below is how things were always done for a long time.

"Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny."

Of course, some people kind of worry that by not reading the agreement totally, it might end up like this.

Fortunately, the world doesn't work that way, or else a lot of people would have been processed.

Is mindless clicking over these agreement will make the clickers become more easily influenced? Well... Human are not known to be very obedient creatures, that's why they bypassed reading these agreements in the first place.

Would be interesting though if somehow there is a rule that requires the software distributor/publisher to print every pages of the agreements in regular contract size, including downloadale materials (each download equals one agreeement booklet. 1 millions download equals 1`millions bookleets).

Will they reduce significantly words? Or will they reduce the size of an ordinary contract? Or will there be piles of papers lying around without being readed?

In the end, what people should remember here is... do no harm. 

June 28, 2011 | Simeon O. Williams wrote:

Jeff, thanks for a very interesting – and convicting – article.

The question that I have is rather simple – or at least I hope so:

Can I legally use software without reading its EULA? Is it illegal: to use software without reading its EULA?

Thanks for any help anyone.


January 13, 2011 | Jeff Sauro wrote:

Great link, very funny and scary what you can put in those EULAs (e.g. not sure if anyone read the text in the graphic on this post). 

January 13, 2011 | Tom Engh wrote:

Data from last years Game Station April Fools joke confirms your data. 88% of purchasers by not reading the agreement and opting out agreed to relinquish their soul.

See Online Shoppers Unknowingly Sold souls

January 13, 2011 | Jeff Sauro wrote:


Thanks for the catching of that typo. Your comments are well put. I agree.  

January 13, 2011 | josephmartins wrote:

Jeff, I have a few comments to offer if I may.

First, in paragraph two I believe you meant to write "legalese" not legalize.

Second, it seems that a very small percentage of consumers take the time to read any agreements thoroughly. Think about the documentation for a mortgage, a cell phone service plan, a warranty or a checking account. How many people are fully aware of the terms of their license to operate motor vehicles or the state and local ordinances where they live? When is the last time that you recall reading an agreement in its entirety? They all contain the very same type of legalese (a.k.a. the "fine print") which is--for the average person--difficult to comprehend and easy to misinterpret. Nonethless the law tells us that ignorance is no defense. Apparently the Courts expect us all to hire legalese-to-English interpreters before entering into any contracts, implied or otherwise.

Lastly, you're correct that there isn't really a choice in the matter. Even if the legalese were printed on the packaging...even if it were read to consumers really doesn't change the fact that consumers still have a need the product or service fulfills and they would very likely agree to the terms anyway. Negotiation would make the process impractical and a management nightmare. It's not as if consumers have the option to use a competing product or service that does not have an agreement attached....these days practically every product/service includes one. Certainly the terms might differ and one may be "better" than another, but consumers would have to read the agreements to figure that out--and we find ourselves back where we started. 

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