Terms of Service for any website can be confusing. Everything from legal terms in large complex sentences, to short summarizing phrases can be found in this type of document. However, even those statements that summarize and are meant to provide clarity can end up confusing the average, non-legal reader. Most of us simply find it easier to click the “I accept” button and move on, hoping that we didn’t somehow sign our lives away in the process. I will be focusing on the Youtube Terms of service in this article; more specifically the “Your Content and Conduct” section which includes a discussion of ownership rights regarding Content. Although the activity systems involved are an important factor as to why the terms are written the way they are, I will focus more on the text itself with some brief insight into the activity systems.
Texts like these are usually for legal purposes as opposed to users of the website. In order to fully know what one is signing up for, the user should read through the terms of service when first joining a website. However, many of us cannot even translate the legal terms and find our eyes glazing over before really even understanding the basic content of these terms. The website that is providing these terms of service, such as Youtube, is not writing towards the users, but rather to the legal teams in case a user, or other company that uses the site, brings up a legal discussion or debate about something that occurs on the website. We find that three separate activity systems come into conflict within the reading of this document.
While the text is primarily to give proof to the user of the rules and regulations that the site has, it must be written in legal terms to be presentable if problems should arise that bring the legal system into the argument. The three activity systems can be identified as the youtube staff, the users, and the copyright laws that youtube must regulate. The YouTube staff is at work through the writing of the terms. The staff is the connection between the user and the service, making them an important part of the relationships involved between the activity systems. The user is obviously involved as the subject of the terms of service as well as the people who are directly affected by the other activity systems. The copyright laws are presented within the terms of service as would be expected by a legal team. This brings into play the third activity system. Together these three systems work to form a relationship revolving around this website.
The conflicts between the activity systems bring about the need for these terms of service, in order to keep everyone on the same page. Sometimes the conflicts of interest cause some confusion and the terms end up being a little confusing to the user. The terms are described as “community guidelines” on the youtube site to further place responsibility on the user, showing that the user must have full knowledge of the terms and will be held to those rules. The formal elements of the writing do not make it unintelligible, but some lengthy sections and legal vocabulary can make it difficult to those who do not want to read through a legal document. It does not seem that they are intentionally trying to confuse the user, but are simply following the legal procedures that the site will be held to. The legal framework lowers the reading ease and may be cause for some confusion.
If we look directly into the text, we can find some key examples of where the terms are quite easy to understand, but also sections in which the reader has the potential to get lost or confused. Point number one is easy enough to grasp stating that “as a YouTube account holder you may submit Content to the Service, including videos and user comments. You understand that YouTube does not guarantee any confidentiality with respect to any Content you submit.” This statement is pretty clearly is saying that you can submit videos and comments, but they may not necessarily be kept private since it is a public site.
Point two is a bit more difficult. They throw in different legal terms, covering all the bases that the legal system mostly likely expects of them.
“You shall be solely responsible for your own Content and the consequences of submitting and publishing your Content on the Service. You affirm, represent, and warrant that you own or have the necessary licenses, rights, consents, and permissions to publish Content you submit; and you license to YouTube all patent, trademark, trade secret, copyright or other proprietary rights in and to such Content for publication on the Service pursuant to these Terms of Service.”
The second sentence is a whopping 53 words throwing in everything from “rights” to “trademark” within them including the word “pursuant” which means nothing more than accordance to, or following the Terms of Service. It’s words with that much prowess that seem to throw readers for a loop when they scroll through the expectations. It makes you really wonder what you’re signing before you hit “accept” on the site.
The biggest point, point three, comes with not only the most words but is also the most complexity in both sentence structure and content. They start off with the helpful phrase: “For clarity, you retain all of your ownership rights in your Content.” This gives us a good feeling, thinking that they have assured us that our videos are ours. The rest of the section however, leaves a reader with less certainty -- that is if they can get through it.
“However, by submitting Content to YouTube, you hereby grant YouTube a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sub-licensable and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform the Content in connection with the Service and YouTube's (and its successors' and affiliates') business, including without limitation for promoting and redistributing part or all of the Service (and derivative works thereof) in any media formats and through any media channels. You also hereby grant each user of the Service a non-exclusive license to access your Content through the Service, and to use, reproduce, distribute, display and perform such Content as permitted through the functionality of the Service and under these Terms of Service. The above licenses granted by you in video Content you submit to the Service terminate within a commercially reasonable time after you remove or delete your videos from the Service. You understand and agree, however, that YouTube may retain, but not display, distribute, or perform, server copies of your videos that have been removed or deleted. The above licenses granted by you in user comments you submit are perpetual and irrevocable.”
The first thing that may be cause for a bit of unease, is the use of the word “however.” YouTube had just established a sense of clarity, but had a bit of a catch after all. This section is not easy to get through with a reading ease grade level of 17.6. According to the reading ease scale you would need at least 5-6 years of college level education to understand the section. Needless to say, most of YouTube’s users don’t have that.
The almost 200 word section of the terms of service is enough to throw any user into a sense of panic if they were able to get through all of the legal terms. The site covers all basis of materials on YouTube in only a few sentences. A primary use of listing helps the terms to stretch to the longer sentences you can see. Lists such as “worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sub-licensable and transferable license” and “to use reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform the Content.” While these lists do not seem all that hard to understand when separated, combined into one sentence they have the effect of overwhelming the reader. In reality, the legal terms used are ones that we hear often in everyday life, but connecting them into the long and complex sentences as they have causes it to seem over-complicated and very legal.
While the terms on “Your Content and Conduct” continue on for another three points, we can clearly see from the first three how the text is set up. As a whole, this section has a readability grade level of about 14, meaning you would need at least 14 years of education to fully understand what it says. This can be in a large part due to the number of words per sentence, 21.2, that the passages average. The terms of service for YouTube concern all of the site’s users, as well as the YouTube staff and the legal teams who are dealing with the copyright laws the terms include.
In the text, there doesn’t seem to be any purposeful additions of words to completely throw off the average YouTube user who may have taken the time out to read through all of the terms. Strangely enough, these terms of service seem to be more user friendly than some others. However, I have not investigated the rest of the terms of service. The user-friendly nature of this section may be in order to establish the rules for YouTube as a “community.” Since the “Content and Conduct” section directly concerns the user, it makes sense that it is slightly more readable than other sections. We can only hope that after hitting “accept” that those more complicated legal terms don’t come back to haunt us. It might just pay off to read through the terms of service you read. You might understand more than you think if you take the time to pull each line apart.