Ask Dr. Eldritch

Don't fall victim to vampires! Don't get slashed by a psycho! Don't get stuck, ASK DR. ELDRITCH!

Dear Dr. Eldritch,
I accidentally sold myself into slavery! Please help me get out of this contract!

While surfing the web a couple weeks ago, I saw a "Desktop Minion" utility that was really cute. It was free, so I downloaded it. When I came to the terms and conditions page, I just clicked "I agree." Well, a couple days later, these big guys show up at my door. They asked if I was the one who downloaded the minion software, and when I said yes, they grabbed me, and threw me into a black van! It turns out that there's a clause that says I have to serve ten years of "indentured servitude" in exchange for the program!

I tried to argue that I hadn't read everything in the agreement, but they just laughed. Now I'm being kept in a subterranean cavern with dozens of others who downloaded the software. We're being forced to do data mining, and the overseers whip us if we work too slowly. We fight over the food, which is terrible, and what's worse, we're only allowed fifteen minutes of Internet a day! There's no spam filters or pop-up blockers, so you can guess where most of that time goes.

I managed to email my family, and they contacted a lawyer. She said that it was a binding legal contract, and I should have read it more carefully. Some help! I know I got myself into this, but there must be some way out, other than ten years working for pennies a day. What can I do to escape?

-- Melinda, somewhere underground

Dear Melinda,

Let me guess; you're Internet savvy enough not to buy "magical pixie dust" from unsolicited emails, so you were confident you couldn't be fooled. Now, most advice columnists would try to be supportive and validate your choices, but I have to ask: What were you thinking? I know; it didn't occur to you that someone would so cruelly exploit another's carelessness. I can see how you'd believe this, as unscrupulous individuals have only been deceiving the gullible for, oh, thousands of years. So it's still rather new.

Perhaps you felt you were too smart to be tricked. If so, I suggest you look around at your present circumstances and reassess. You may be highly intelligent, but the opposite of "gullible" is not "clever," it's "incredulous" (the judges would also accept "skeptical"). Every day, bright people fall for scams, cons, advertising, and cheap pick-up lines, so you're in good company. You wouldn't believe how many times Albert Einstein bought x-ray glasses from the back of a comic book.

I know, I shouldn't be kicking you while you're underground, and you've probably been doing enough of it already. So let's see what can be done. I've got some bad news, and some not-quite-as-bad news. Bad news first: Your lawyer is correct, an online EULA (that's End-User Licensing Agreement, of course) is binding, and you fell for it lock, stock and pillory. I trust you'll be more careful in the future when you click.

The less-bad news is that there's always an escape clause. That's a hold-over from the ancient evil traps like opening puzzle boxes, reading mystical grimoires, or summoning demonic entities. These are implied contracts, and the legal profession has continued the tradition. As a side note, you'd actually be better off if it was a magical contract, as enforcement is done by the arcane forces of magic, which are notoriously difficult to subvert. Corporations are perfectly willing to breach merely legal contracts when it becomes easier to default than to honor them.

But I digress. Read the agreement very carefully, looking for any tiny loophole or condition that may nullify the contract. If it's air-tight, you may be required to challenge the corporation and beat its champion in a competition. That's fairly common. How's your chess game?

The other option is to foment a rebellion! Who hasn't wanted to incite an angry mob to throw off their chains and rise up against the oppressors! True, it's a mob of the sort of people who would download free software, but the promise of high-speed Internet access may stir them to be heroic. Liberté! égalité! ISP!

If it's any comfort, I'm told by my friends from the Future that a class-action lawsuit will eventually be won against companies that use deceptive EULA tactics. Afterward, they'll be required to provide a concise summary of terms, highlighting any unsual or unexpected conditions, like your servitude clause. It doesn't really help you now, but your suffering will help prevent future victims. Perhaps they'll send you some magical pixie dust in gratitude.

Good luck, and let me know how it comes out!

-- Dr. Eldritch


(DISCLAIMER: Anyone intelligent enough to be reading this should understand 1) Satire, and 2) That following the advice given may result in physical, mental, or spiritual harm to beings living, dead, or undead. The author does not suggest that anyone other that the originator of any given letter follow his advice, and cannot be held liable if anyone else does.
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© 2005 Evan M. Nichols