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A paper towel dispenser with an end-user license agreement is a special kind of hell

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A tedious tussle over Tork tissue: how terrible

Tough talk from Tork.
Credit: John Overholt via Twitter

The battle for supremacy in the world of hand hygiene is a dirty one, and nothing demonstrates this better than the depressing sight of a paper towel dispenser with a EULA.

That’s right: even dumb plastic boxes whose only use in this world is to hold paper towels apparently need an end-user license agreement now. In this case, the EULA — spotted by Harvard Library curator and Twitter user John Overholt at a recent conference — forbids the people who have to refill this Tork dispenser from using rival, non-Tork products.

What a world.

EULAs, if you’re not familiar, are contracts made between companies and customers that bind the latter’s actions in certain ways. You might have seen complaints about them in the context of digital rights, where they and other long-winded terms and conditions you agree to when installing software, can be used against you in weird and unsettling ways.

As the digital rights group EFF explains here, EULAs can be used to stop you criticizing a product publicly, for example, or from fixing it yourself if it breaks. They’re examples of the ludicrous extremes of legal bureaucracy, and it’s ridiculous to apply them to something like a paper towel dispenser.

Just think about it for a second. You can definitely make the case that EULAs are useful in certain situations, particularly if it helps the customer get the best out of a product. But do you really think the job of dispensing paper towels is so technically difficult that only Tork towels in a Tork dispenser can do it properly? More often than not, the logic of EULAs is used to limit customer choice, as with coffee pods and printer ink, for example. If we let this sort of protectionism become the norm, it’s all of us who end up losing out.

What’s depressing is that this paper towel EULA isn’t even new. We saw Overholt’s picture via BoingBoing, but a quick search on Twitter reveals sightings of the same legal gobbledygook dating back to at least 2015. Obviously Tork has been trying this for a while.

The obvious question, though, is why would anyone even care enough about which paper towels they use to put a EULA on a paper towel dispenser? Well, as I found out myself back in 2016, the world of hand hygiene can be pretty vicious.

Back then, I reported on a series of scientific studies, supposedly proving paper towels or hand air dryers as the superior hand-drying method. Each study was sponsored by big corporate backers like Airblade-makers Dyson and the European Tissue Symposium, and each used dodgy methodology to smear the competition and drum up sensational headlines.

In other words, I’m not surprised that even in an apparently low-stakes industry like this, a company such as Tork might pursue such weird legal methods to promote its own products and shut down the competition. However, I’d be greatly surprised if this particular EULA was ever enforced. How would Tork even know? Surprise inspections?

Contracts like this aren’t worth the paper towels they’re written on.