The Bestsellers You May Never Have Read

There’s a group of bestselling pieces of writing that are short, generally well-organized, easy to access, and read too infrequently.

They’re the Terms of Service agreements that accompany (or can be accessed) upon your subscribing to or employing services from websites, and they’re actually important for free, as well as paid, sites.

Terms of Service (TOS) agreements are too easily glossed over. When the first taste of a new product/service is in the offing, who wants to stop and read a couple of pages of boring boiler plate that probably says pretty much the same thing they all say?

Nobody, of course. But there are three key things that you should at least do a spot check on to see what you’re getting yourself into.

  1. End of service. Many TOS allow the company offering the service to shut down your access and use at its sole discretion without warning or remedy and, in some cases, without telling you. If you have email, notes, files, documents, etc. stored on a service that cuts you out without prior notice, you and/or your business/career may be in trouble. If you’re going to sign up for a service that may do this and you know it, at least you can take the precaution of exporting all your material on a regular basis . . .
  2. Rights to your material. TOS agreements often make a big deal about the provider’s rights to the material that you are gaining a non-exclusive right to use. They are also likely to warn you against infringing the rights of others in the material that you use.They may or may not, however, acknowledge your rights to material that you create and own. While some companies will ask you to agree to license your content for the minimum necessary use in order to do whatever it is they do with content, others will demand that you assign them the right to do virtually anything with your content. And, if that content is communications from other people, you make this agreement on their behalf and without their knowledge.
  3. Getting Your Data Out Besides the case of being shut out from your data, being able to export it in a usable form is critical if it is data that you need. File > export is nice, and it’s worth checking to see if it exists. If not, what are your options?

This topic came to mind because today I (finally) downloaded Evernote for my Mac. And I skimmed their service agreement before I did. The Evernote service agreement starts with three four-word sentences that promise you ownership, protection, and portability of your data, and a link to the CEO’s blog where these three “laws” are explained in more detail.

So, don’t ignore the lowly Terms of Service agreement. It may not be couched in deathless prose, but it’s certainly worth your while to know what it says.