Legal language

We recently announced some upcoming updates to our various legal documents. All in all, the revamped documents are a good step forward for us and our customers: they're better organized and do a better job of defining some key terms and relationships.

But one thing we're not crazy about with the new documents—or our outgoing Terms, for that matter—is the general tone of the language. Legal language, in its quest for absolute clarity, is wont to produce real mouthfuls. Dig this one from Section 4 of our Acceptable Use Policy:

"You hereby grant to Populi a non-exclusive, transferable, sublicenseable, worldwide, royalty-free license to use, copy, modify, create derivative works based upon, distribute, publicly display, publicly perform and distribute your User Content in connection with operating and providing the Services and Content to you and to the Customer where you are or were employed, engaged, enrolled, or applying to be enrolled."

I don't know about you, but my eyes start glazing over about six letters into the word "sublicenseable"—and I'm the guy they pay to read and (re)write stuff like this! But that's the thing about legal language: it has to cover every possible situation. Without the above, a student could sue us for saving his course discussion comment so his professor could read it later. If that happened often enough, we'd have to just fold this thing up and go home.

So, the legal language is there to help us color inside the lines, and it's there so you know exactly what the arrangement is. As the old saw goes, "Good fences make good neighbors."

But... yeah, this stuff, frankly, is a solemn read, and its detail and precision can get in the way of you understanding what we're trying to say. For that reason, we've included brief, plain-English summaries above each main section of the official documents.

1-18-13 this means

Each section is prefaced by a "This means that..." blurb that elucidates the official text that follows. These aren't legally-binding clauses of the policies; if you can think of the policies as fences, then think of these summaries as notes tied to the gateposts saying, "This fence means that that there is yours, and this over here is ours."

For example, the summary of Section 4 of the AUP distills the above-quoted mouthful into this crisp little sentence:  "We make no claims of any kind to your Content, but you give us the right to make that Content useful to you and others at your school." Much better, right?

We got this idea from some other web-based services, including 500px and Shopify. Evernote took a different approach but in the same spirit: it rewrote its Terms as a Q&A in plain-ish language. It's a good notion. Legal language can be dense and intimidating, and while there's some justification for it to be so, we nevertheless wanted to help de-mystify it a bit for our users.