Is there any legal force to an email disclaimer?
August 10, 2004 6:29 AM   Subscribe

Email disclaimers - is there any point in having an email disclaimer? Is it legally binding? Is it merely a waste of bandwidth and brainpower?

For example, here's our current email disclaimer (ok, don't fall asleep already):

This email (including attachments) is confidential. If you have received this email in error please notify the sender immediately and delete this email from your system without copying or disseminating it or placing any reliance upon its contents. We cannot accept liability for any breaches of confidence arising through use of email. Any opinions expressed in this email (including attachments) are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect our opinions. We will not accept responsibility for any commitments made by our employees outside the scope of our business. We do not warrant the accuracy or completeness of such information.

Personally, I think this is absolute tosh, I doubt it's legally binding, and is just a waste of bandwidth and clutters the reading of an email. It's nice occasionally to see that an email's been virus scanned, but surely this is implied anyway nowadays?
posted by BigCalm to Law & Government (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
IANAL, but I suspect it does provide some sort of "shield" for least the company can point to it and say, "But look - all of our employees have this in their e-mail, so they *know* the rules about (x,yz,z)."

I find them annoying. And in the healthcare field, with HIPAA and such, some of the disclaimers are ridiculous -- about twice the length of the one you cited.

And then there's the "personal" ones -- and the religious ones -- and the "wisdom" ones.

posted by davidmsc at 6:57 AM on August 10, 2004

Response by poster: I'm just thinking back to old Usenet days when if your .sig block was more than 4 lines you might be accused of warlording. This falls in to the same category surely?
posted by BigCalm at 7:23 AM on August 10, 2004

Do they put the same disclaimers on mailed documents? Do phone calls get disclaimer?
posted by smackfu at 7:28 AM on August 10, 2004

Facsimiles frequently get a disclaimer. They go on communications which are easily misdirected. Snail mail and phone calls are not. Well, you might call the wrong number but you would not give them the secret message then would you?

People use these disclaimers to show that they are taking reasonable steps to protect their confidential information, which may be necessary to establish that it is indeed confidential if it somehow comes to a court battle. They also have a practical effect. Most people who receive a facsimile or email message in error, especially one with such a disclaimer, either silently dispose of it or send it back to the sender.
posted by caddis at 7:39 AM on August 10, 2004

I rather doubt the legality of email disclaimers, especially since they usually appear at the bottom of the message, so you may not read the disclaimer until you've read the rest of the message.
posted by Nick Jordan at 7:56 AM on August 10, 2004

But you must remember that regardless of the legality, e-mails sent by the company's employees are regarded as items sent with the company letterheard. So any laws applying to a document containing a letterheard applies to e-mails (sending hate mail, conversations with other companies, etc. would all be seen as coming from a company letterheard). I cannot think of a recepient having to worry about this at all.
posted by geoff. at 8:27 AM on August 10, 2004

Best answer: Slate had an article about this.
posted by caddis at 8:40 AM on August 10, 2004

I always find it hilarious when I get forwarded silly crap and it has those long legalistic signatures buried somewhere in the mass of email addresses in there. I'm one of those people who takes great delight in telling someone what an email said, just because it said I wasn't supposed to.

Regarding bandwidth, well, the signatures can hardly be wasting as much bandwidth as the 10MB avis and "funny joke lol!!!111" emails that employees are sending around.
posted by reklaw at 9:07 AM on August 10, 2004

I've always assumed these exist more to remind employees not to send questionable/personal content from a work address than anything else.
posted by jalexei at 9:53 AM on August 10, 2004

See also The Register's 2001 Email Disclaimer Awards.
posted by mragreeable at 10:09 AM on August 10, 2004

Sorry, just noticed that the Slate article links to the Register article.
posted by mragreeable at 10:13 AM on August 10, 2004

My absolute favorite is when a bottom-of-the-email disclaimer says that if the email isn't intended for you, you should not read it. Makes me wonder if someone, well, read (and then thought through) the disclaimer before deciding that it was appropriate to tag onto the bottom of every freakin' email send out of their corporate server.
posted by delfuego at 10:55 AM on August 10, 2004

my telephone number in princeton was one digit away from the fax number of the local cops. i returned home one day to find a couple dozen u.s. and international wrap sheets on the floor. yitzhak rabin had spoken a few days before at the un and the secret service had faxed a file of people to be on the lookout for, as rabin would be speaking at the university in a couple of days. the cover sheet had the typical "if you have received this fax in error" blah blah so i called them. a very polite agent answered my call, took my name and number and said that someone would call me back. they called within ten minutes and asked me a few questions and said that someone would come and pick up the documents (they hadn't asked for my address).

i was living in the married students residence at the time and about a half hour later a very large unmarked car rolled to a stop. they were polite, gave me a long and hard look and left. i think the only victim of this error might have been the shrooms growing under my neighbours bed. he cycled home while i was talking to the agents and almost vaulted off his bike into his house in one leap.
posted by heather at 10:58 AM on August 10, 2004 [1 favorite]

E-mail disclaimers are the bane of my life. Managers and directors ask for them because everyone else does it, even though the legal case for these is dubious. Nobody reads the damn things and it's not like you can agree to their terms before you receive the message.

Most times the disclaimer is bigger than the damn message.

Oh, and here's a warning - graphical e-mail footers are on the way and gaining in popularity.
posted by dodgygeezer at 12:58 PM on August 10, 2004

graphical e-mail footers are on the way and gaining in popularity.

Not for me they're not: View -> Message Body As -> Simple HTML

This is probably my favorite feature of Mozilla Mail / Thunderbird.
posted by jmcmurry at 1:46 PM on August 10, 2004

At the newspaper I used to work at, we received several press releases every week with confidentiality disclaimers attatched--both faxes and e-mails. It's hard not to think they're all stupid when you get the simultanous messages that we really want you to put this information in your newspaper, but you are legally barred from sharing it with anyone.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 8:27 PM on August 10, 2004

At a previous employer I made a habit of inserting nonsense prose in the middle of the standard email disclaimer, especially when writing to anyone in senior management - just to see if anyone would ever notice. Inevitably, they never did.
posted by normy at 10:54 PM on August 10, 2004

Croutonsupafreak, you are not alone! I write a Weblog for MSNBC that often asks for reader feedback. It's hilarious to me that so many people send me feedback about a certain show or other, obviously intending it for inclusion in the column, and they have a law firm or other disclaimer warning me not to print it. Um, OK?
posted by GaelFC at 10:59 PM on August 10, 2004

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