When I was looking at an email the other day, I stopped to think about something that comes with a lot of them. It's a legal disclaimer/warning/threat that often comes with even the friendliest of messages. Here's the one that was at the bottom of an email I just received:
"This message is for the sole use of the intended recipients and may contain information that is privileged and confidential. If the reader of this message is not the intended recipient, you are hereby notified that any dissemination, distribution or copying of this communication is strictly prohibited. If you have received this communication in error, please notify us immediately, by telephone or email. Thank you."
So, my question is, should we be concerned that there's really some legal ramifications if we disseminate, distribute or copy these emails that weren't intended for us? (And with all the stuff that comes our way, how are we supposed to know it wasn't intended for us?)
—Willa C., Medford
An email disclaimer, Willa, is a cautious legal measure that was born in an age even before email existed.
To understand the legal weight of the disclaimer, a little history of disclaimers is useful.
According to the American Bar Association, a national association of attorneys, the email disclaimer you see on messages today was a product of insecure fax communication years ago.
Before, when attorneys wanted to send a document somewhere, they would use a fax machine. Because fax machines were able to store numbers for easier use, and because faxes were sometimes sent to hotel lobbies or business centers, attorneys were concerned that the information they sent could be misread or delivered to someone for whom the message was not intended.
According to the ABA, this prompted lawyers to begin using a cover sheet, which identified the intended recipient and served to threaten the unintended recipient if they should redistribute the information.
The idea transferred to email after electronic messages took the place of a fax machine in most offices.
But, according to the ABA, the email disclaimer's legal weight is "dubious."
The main reason disclaimers exist is to prevent the unintentional loss of attorney-client privilege if a lawyer accidently sent an email to the wrong address.
So, while we aren't advocating that you take an email you receive by mistake and turn it into a flier to pass out around town, Willa, it doesn't appear that opening a message or disobeying the disclaimer will land you in any legal trouble.
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