E-mail disclaimers and legal signatures disturb me. I feel strongly that any legal jargon appended to an e-mail should have little to no legal weight.
The information contained in this email is confidential and may be legally privileged. If you have received it in error, you may not read, use, copy or disclose this email. If you are not the intended recipient, please let us know by reply email immediately and then delete this email from your system. We shall not be responsible for any changes to, or interception of, this email or any attachment after it leaves our information systems. We accept no responsibility for viruses or defects in this email or any attachments.
My belief is borne from a feeling that an individual or company instructing me to ignore something stated just moments ago is absurd behaviour. What commercial company has the right to demand I forget a prior statement?
For the context of this entry I am considering only English and Welsh company law, and specifically limited companies — those whose name ends with 'Limited'. Also note, this is not legal advice.
Disclaimers and legal jargon in e-mail signatures originate from the legal requirement for companies to include specific information on company correspondence.
The translation from paper to e-mail has not been smooth, or entirely sane.
Most legal disclaimers appended to e-mail go much further than any legal requirement. A company letter requires a few bits and pieces. These include:
- Company address;
- Company directors and secretary;
- Company registration number.
These details make sense. The address, individuals, and registration number are all that is needed to uniquely identify a company. A return address and name to associate with the letter is just common sense.
On a company letter these required details do not affect the rights of the reader, nor do they attempt to instruct the reader in any way. They are provided as a means of checking the company is real, registered, and traceable.
Company e-mail signatures attempt to fulfil this legal requirement. They go further though. The legal jargon attempts to make up for a weakness in e-mail that is not suffered by physical correspondence.
E-mail is open, unsecure, unreliable, and organised much like a beautiful bird's nest.
Your e-mail hops between numerous machines to get delivered — with each hop often controlled by a different company. Every one of those machines can read and change the body of your e-mail. They do not, but they could. E-mail is effectively free and built on trust.
Letters sent through the post or courier are sealed, secure, and reliable. The postal service is organised and contained. Failure to deliver is traceable and the service provider is responsible for resolving problems because you paid.
Company e-mail signatures thus try to add the security and reliability back into e-mail through their one tool - legal statement. How often have you read e-mails demanding you delete misdirected correspondence? How often have you read e-mails demanding you inform the sender if it has been misdirected? How often have you been told to ignore an e-mail if you were not its intended reader?
This overbearing inclusion of demands detracts from our original legal requirement; how can you include your required company information in an e-mail while balancing your consideration for the reader?
What is considered an appropriate e-mail signature? Four lines of text. Your entire signature should fit in four lines.
Fitting your company details in this limited space would push out the sender's more important personal details.
Consider the following signature:
-- Address: Dragon Systems Software Limited (DssW), 3rd Floor Suite, 41-43 Broad Street, Hereford, HR4 9AR, United Kingdom Company No.: 3397571 Directors: G.C.Miln, E.A.Fancourt Company Secretary: J.E.Fancourt
Thanks to line wrapping all four lines are used without mentioning my name, telephone number, or e-mail address. The signature could include more by removing the line breaks and cramming more information on each line. This suggests a "small print" attitude that will make the information difficult to read and make readers suspicious.
Compare the above signature to our DssW support signature.
The support signature is not associated with an individual; its contents include the best ways to contact us and a link to our site to learn more about us.
What about an address? DssW's address and full contact information is available on the DssW web site. That seems the obvious place to publish contact details.
Appending an address to every e-mail does not help our customers. Customers need to be assured of immediate or near immediate means of contact; an address does not provide that.
Your legal requirement is suited to a time before electronic communication. The obligatory company details are no longer immediately useful.
So how can you balance fulfilling your legal requirement without ignoring e-mail etiquette? I have a simple solution.
From today, DssW embeds the required information into our e-mail headers.
The headers are a perfect place for this information.
- Headers prefix the message body.
- Headers are often hidden by e-mail clients until requested.
- Using headers avoids using attachments.
- Using headers keeps the trailing signature free for personal contact details.
Thus the next DssW e-mail you get will include the following in its header. The chances are you will not notice or even care. Much like you traditionally ignore the very same details on every company letter.
X-Company-Address: Dragon Systems Software Ltd (DssW), 3rd Floor Suite, 41-43 Broad Street, Hereford, HR4 9AR, United Kingdom X-Company-Registration: EnglishWelsh-3397571 X-Company-Directors: G.C.Miln, E.A.Fancourt X-Company-Secretary: J.E.Fancourt X-Company-About: </about/>
The headers above conform to e-mail standards. The fields are chosen in a way to allow programs and scripts to extract useful information. Imagine the ease with which a script can extract all the X-Company-* fields in order to populate an address book entry.
There is a good possibility of a microformat being born to standardise these headers. I would love to hear from others in order to design a microformat suitable for handling multiple legal systems and company structures.
As for all that legal jargon regarding deleting, viruses, and attempting to limit legal liability, consider using the headers — or better still consider what impression it makes on your customers.
I will continue to distrust companies that automatically append disclaimers to their staff's e-mail. Do these companies not trust their staff?