Seasonal Disclaimers – and Copyright?

‘Tis the season for law firms (and no doubt others) to send out season’s greetings by email, most often accompanied by the usual wordy and sometimes bilingual notices that the content of the email may be confidential, privileged and subject to diverse prohibitions that we are more or less politely admonished to comply with.

Here’s a typical, though polite, version (French omitted):

CONFIDENTIALITY NOTICE: The contents of this electronic mail message are confidential and strictly reserved for the sole use of its intended recipients. This message may contain information protected by the solicitor-client privilege. If you receive this message in error, please notify the sender immediately and delete the original message as well as all copies. Any disclosure, copying, distribution or reliance on the contents of the information is strictly prohibited. Thank you.

This year I have seen one that despite its economy of expression has an element that’s new to me: a copyright claim. It’s in an email whose subject line is “Happy Holidays from Your Friends at [Big Law firm]” and besides the medium-tech ‘e-card’ to which it links, its only content is this (I omit the French):

“This e-mail message is privileged, confidential and subject to copyright. Any unauthorized use or disclosure is prohibited.”

The usual question arises whether it is helpful to claim privilege in something that is clearly not privileged, or whether that undermines one’s assertion of privilege when the content really is privileged.

The new question, for me, is why one asserts copyright. Copyright arises automatically in our law, though possibly protecting it internationally would be helped by an assertion – but doesn’t the Berne Convention require the use of © to do that, and a date?

Is the idea to prevent recipients from borrowing/pirating/emulating the firm’s finely honed expression of its legal work (assuming charitably that it did not insert the copyright claim solely into its holiday greetings)? Given the amount of borrowing from long-standing and widely-distributed precedents in legal drafting, does that really hold water anyway? I suppose emails are not usually drafted using the forms books…

Is it an attempt to prevent people from posting online cease-and-desist notices that law firms send out to people who their clients think have defamed them? It is becoming common for such letters to show up on the recipients’ web sites, partly to expose what the recipients perceive as bullying, and partly to laugh at the pomposity of some of the writers. (Drafters of such letters, take note.)

Is there a new problem that this new notice is aimed at resolving, or is it just another cautionary note from a profession that is good at detecting risk and trying to avert it? Or is it a bit of overkill?

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Comments

  1. Seems like overkill to me. It’s not the Berne Convention that requires it – it’s the Universal Copyright Convention, which previously was the only one the US cared about. Now that the US has hopped on to the Berne Convention, though, we can all dispense with slavishly writing (c) on everything.

    Such notice does forestall the argument that the copier was unaware that copyright resided in the original, although that only helps restrict available remedies.