Electrocuting dogs is not my thing. Especially not Tulla! – my sister’s beautiful Newfoundland Retriever pictured here.
But psychologist Martin Seligman did just that back in 1967. He was experimenting on the behaviour of Alsatians when subjected to electric shocks, and he discovered a pattern which he called “learned helplessness”.
A Definition of “Learned Helplessness”
The results of his experiments are defined in the following excerpt from the Wikipedia article on the subject of learned helplessness:
“In learned helplessness studies, an animal is repeatedly exposed to an aversive stimulus which it cannot escape. Eventually, the animal stops trying to avoid the stimulus and behaves as if it is helpless to change the situation. When opportunities to escape become available, learned helplessness means the animal does not take any action.”
I came across this in a book called “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” by Greg McKeown. Greg argues that this behavioural pattern is prevalent in humans too, so much so that much of what we do is determined by our failure to make active choices about what is important to us. In other words, we have learned to become helpless over time.
Learned Helplessness in Software Licensing Negotiations?
It occurred to me that this is precisely what has happened in the software licensing business. I have seen countless obvious cases of “learned helplessness” in software licensing negotiations (or lack of negotiations). When buying software, customers wrongly assume that the licensing terms are dictated by the software vendor, and are non-negotiable.
Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, etc. have done a very good job of electrocuting their customers into believing that they have to simply accept the latest boilerplate contract without discussion.
Only this week, I came across a software vendor who presented a licence grant clause which was totally inappropriate to the customer’s usage of the product. It was obvious to both parties that the way the licence grant was worded put the user of the software in immediate breach of contract, because they were using it for a completely different purpose than what was described in the licence grant clause.
When this was pointed out it took a lot of toing and froing with the software vendor’s legal department to finally have a change made to the sacred, standard licensing terms.
But the software vendor was forced to make that change. When explained logically to their salesman, he was forced to admit that he was selling us an apple, but calling it a pear.
Insist that the Software Licensing Agreement is Accurate
Customers who submit to their conditioned “learned helplessness”, might let these inaccurate descriptions pass unchallenged. When relations are good (as they invariably are when you are about to cut a multi-million dollar purchase order) then what is written in the contract is doesn’t really matter as long as the parties know what is meant, right? Wrong!
Before you cut the PO you have the negotiation leverage to make sure what you are buying is accurately described in the licensing agreement. When you are buying software you are not “buying software” you are buying a right to use the software product for a particular purpose.
Our contracts expert Lora Valtcheva explains this in great detail in the second SoftwareSpend podcast on negotiating licence grants.
I hate to hear about dogs getting electrocuted. And software vendors stinging their customers also upsets me. However, if you have a story to tell about “learned helplessness” in software licensing agreements, please share in the comments.