Stupid Email Disclaimers

Tuesday August 28 2012 - , , ,

imageEnough with the stupid email disclaimers already! The article “Stupid Email Disclaimers and The Stupid Users That Use Them” at attrition.org sums up my feelings on this subject nicely:

“We thought it would be a fad. Ok, we hoped it would be a fad, destined to go away as quickly as it came. Unfortunately, those worthless e-mail legal disclaimers still pollute the internet. Written by overzealous lawyers that don't seem to realize the stupidity futility of their effort, poorly worded legal gibberish tries to force you into binding contracts to protect their careless mistakes. One of their employees just fires off an e-mail full of corporate secrets? No worries! That legal disclaimer will ensure the unintended recipient deletes it without question! Wishful thinking douchebag lawyers.”

I’m not sure how UK businesses are getting seduced in to this rather silly practice. Is it in fact over-zealous lawyers eager to appear to be adding more value than they really are? Are people blindly copying others like sheep? Whatever the reason, please stop! These disclaimers are often so badly worded that they are laughable. If your organization uses a ‘legal’ disclaimer, pause for a moment and read it. Does it really make any sense? Does it really protect you from anything? How does it make you look in the eyes of your customers and suppliers? I’m genuinely interested to know: why do people do it?

  • It makes us look professional – WRONG. It makes you look stupid. These email disclaimers are, on the whole, self contradictory, futile and without any legal teeth. They make you look like an amateur who doesn’t trust anyone.
  • It protects us in case we make a mistake – WRONG. When you send an email, you can’t put binding conditions on it unless the recipient has agreed in advance.
  • It stops the recipient disclosing our confidential information – WRONG. Again, the recipient would have to agree in advance. If you need confidentiality, use a non-disclosure agreement.

Your disclaimer might contain phrases like this:

  • If you are not the intended addressee…
    • If I received the email, I am, by definition, the addressee. Isn’t this a tautology? What this actually means is, if I sent you the email by mistake, then I want to make it your problem instead of mine. Nice try, but the world doesn’t work that way.
  • you may not copy, forward disclose or otherwise use it or any part of it in any way.
    • Too late. You can’t bind someone to behave in a particular way after-the-fact. You’d have to have executed a non disclosure agreement in advance of the email delivery.
  • To do so may be unlawful.
    • “may be unlawful”. Lawyers won’t commit themselves on this because they now it is an empty threat. Unless you were clearly committing some other offence, such as libel or breach of contract, then revealing information that someone has given you carries no threat. Email disclaimers do not fulfil the requirements for a contract and therefore cannot be contractually binding.
  • If you receive this e-mail by mistake, please advise the sender immediately.
    • Well at least you said please, some disclaimers are not so polite. But hang on, didn’t you just say that I may not ‘forward disclose or otherwise use it or any part of it in any way’? Wouldn’t informing the sender be both disclosing and using the email?
    • How would I know I received it by mistake, since I must be on the recipient list? I would naturally assume you knew what you were doing when you hit Send. So tell me – how do I know if you made a mistake?

We got so fed up with these laughable disclaimers that we pushed back with an email policy of our own. Our policy probably has at least as much legal weight as these disclaimers – which is not saying much. At least our policy is published on the web where anyone can see it in advance of sending us email and it is linked from the footer of every email we send out. It makes it explicit that we hold your disclaimer in contempt and we intend to ignore it. I think that puts the ball firmly back in your court.

So tell me: why are people using these disclaimers? I’m genuinely interested to know what the motivation is.

And finally: I have to say this. Yes, its a disclaimer, but I’m criticising lawyers and I don’t want to give them any ammunition to flame me (or worse). So: I am not a lawyer. This article represents my personal opinion and should not be taken as legal advice. I believe the information contained here to be correct and accurate, but you should seek your own legal advice before relying upon it.