Before signing or agreeing to something, you really should read through the contract. However, being a doorstoppingWall of Text, most people and characters just skip to the end and sign it, either trusting or rationalizing no one would be slimy enough to sneak in something they wouldn't have agreed to in previous talks. Oh those poor, deluded souls.
Whatever contract, Deal with the Devil, electronic End User Licensing Agreement or Magically-Binding Contract the character speedily signed will have one or more clauses in the fine print designed to screw them over, remove all liability from the other party, or nullifying the whole thing. The sneaky party will use this to coerce the signer into doing their bidding or taking their stuff, while simultaneously avoiding all consequences.
Most stories with this plot usually center on the signer trying to find a loophole to escape the contract, or otherwise live up to the much steeper conditions in order to finally complete it and render it fulfilled. On the positive side, if the series enforces Laser-Guided Karma, then you can expect the contract to get destroyed and/or overruled due to even more obscure legalese by a friendly Rules Lawyer.
Tropers should rest (mostly) assured that civil code contract law has clauses against "obviously egregious" terms written into a contract. That said, there's plenty of non-egregious ways a contract can harm you — not to mention what counts as legally "egregious" is only extremely outrageous things or something specifically mentioned in law. Judges don't like to overturn a contract unless it is clearly illegal. And the law very often does not prevent "unfair" contracts. After all, unnecessary technicalities are bad for business, right?
Also rest assured that in common law jurisdictions (basically in any English-speaking country outside the heavily French-influenced Quebec and Louisiana), courts will exclude anything in the fine print that the signor shouldn't expect and are generally more favorable to signors than drafters when it comes to standard form contracts ("contracts of adhesion" in lawspeak — or sometimes Leonine Contract) under the doctrine of unconscionability. In fact, U.S. law prevents disclaimers from having any actual force in law. However, if it's not a standard form contract—i.e. you negotiated the contract out, personally or through a representative, with the other guy—expect this trope to be the case, since both parties should have been paying attention when it was written. Although this can also get complicated: "I didn't know that the contract required me to ship 10,000 suspenders" is not an excuse, but "I didn't realise that my American business partner meant 'trousers' when the contract said 'pants'"/"And I didn't realize that my British partner meant 'garters' when the contract said 'suspenders'" might be.
This is also an example of Eagleland Osmosis. Historically, Anglo-American contract law was resistant to any attempt to get out of a contract; "hard law" was the rule of the day. However, over the course of the 20th century judges and legal scholars grew increasingly uncomfortable with the consequences of "hard law", and adopted all kinds of rules like unconscionability,* The contract overwhelmingly favors the more powerful party mistake,* Misunderstanding/not knowing a fact about the world material to the contract. Can be bilateral (the parties both misunderstood each other or both misunderstood the world; a Briton sending his "pants" in exchange for an American's "suspenders" would be an example, as would the buyer and seller of a house in another city that, unbeknownst to them, was at that moment being destroyed by a hurricane) or unilateral (one party misunderstands, and the other should have known about the misunderstanding and cleared things up). frustration of purpose,* Whatever it was you wanted the contract for was taken away by outside forces. This doctrine came up when someone rented a room to watch Edward VII's coronation, only to find that the coronation was delayed because the King was ill; he could still sit in the room but without a coronation to watch, what's the point? impossibility,* Exactly What It Says on the Tin and impracticability* A California innovation, essentially meaning "we could do it, but something unforeseeable happened that makes it prohibitively expensive" to soften its impact, to the point where this trope no longer really applies except where many if not most folks would say "Yeah, you should probably have read the fine print." Courts in non-common law jurisdictions are even more hostile to fine print, and will likely rule any fine print clauses in standard form contracts to be unenforceable. In countries based on Roman law, the civil code heavily restricts the types of clauses that can be put into these sorts of contracts.
In any case, one can contractually rescind any of one's legal rights except for bodily freedom. Joining the military, working for the government (FBI, CIA), or just agreeing to arbitration (giving up your right to sue in court) in a contract, are ways you can give up your rights.
In fiction, the law is pretty clear though — if you signed it, then you agreed with it. Otherwise you wouldn't have signed, right? No one held a gun to your head (if they did, then it is void, if you can prove that). Long story short; read the damn contract.
Read the Freaking Manual is a similar trope, for cases where the careless can be ensnared by equipment malfunctions rather than legal obligations. Compare Unreadable Disclaimer. Favored by the Morally Bankrupt Banker.
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Anime and Manga
Spoofed in Dog Days. The people of Biscotti summon Cinque Izumi to help them. When he succeeds, he learns that the summoning portal was one way and he's now stuck in this fantasy land. He's shown the summoning portal and Eclair berates him for not reading the runes explaining this before jumping through it. Cinque angrily protests that the runes are in dog language and that the portal appeared in his path while he was jumping, so there was no way he could have possibly known.
Magic: The Gathering has a whole bunch of "pay X life: do Y" cards, all of them black, and representing a Faustian bargain. (Note the 6 mana cost for extra evil.) Oddly, in Magic, Faustian bargains with Evilutionary Biologist planeswalkers who are obvious expys for Satan are quite profitable and the only problem being that it's on the Type 1 restricted list. But look at Carnival of Souls. Yes, you can conceivably use it, and yes, it does get better now that manaburn doesn't exist, but half the time, you're paying 1 life to do nothing.
In one Gyro Gearloose story, he has invented a pair of glasses that gives the user superhuman vision. To test it, he among other things read the fine print on his insurance. It turns out the conditions when the insurance doesn't apply are so wide that he basically never can collect ("...does not apply when on foot, in a car, on a train, on a plane, in a bed, on rollerblades...")
Many Uncle Scrooge stories featured him tricking Donald into signing a contract with ridiculously small fine print that Donald had fulfill or risk dire consequences.
One story has this turned against him. Before going on another adventure, the nephews make Scrooge sign a contract stating he will pay them their 30 cent wages, since Scrooge has tried to cheat them in the past. At the end of the story, Scrooge refuses to pay what he considers an outrageous sum; 226 dollars. The nephews reveal the fine print of the contract he signed; either pay the full amount, or eat a crate-ful of horse-radish!
And the whole problem that made Scrooge desperate enough to sign that contract was the fact that, 200 years ago, an ancestor of his signed a contract without reading the fine print. (The ancestor, a Seafoam McDuck, had misplaced his spectacles – Don Rosa would later imply the other party, a Swindle McSue, was responsible for the misplacing) According to that fine print, Seafoam had to deliver a case of horseradish to Jamaica or forfeit his assets to Swindle, who sabotaged the trip for that very purpose. Because Seafoam never gave a set of golden teeth, a Chisel McSue, last heir of the McSue Clan, got a court order allowing to claim Scrooge's estates minus an old set of clothes. Fortunately, even that court order had a fine print, which Scrooge read. It stated Chisel couldn't take possession for 30 days and even then only if Scrooge failed to fulfill the terms of the original contract. Before becoming wealthy, Scrooge sold the aforementioned teeth to buy a prospector's outfit, making it so he couldn't fulfill by any means other than recovering the case of horseradish and delivering it to Jamaica.
Taking a leaf after Swindle McSue, the Beagle Boys once tricked Scrooge into having to deliver a crateful of eggs to the Island of Ripan Taro to avoid having to give them his fortune. When it seemed the delivery would be done, he tripped and the eggs cracked, revealing the eggs weren't of the indicated species. Scrooge invoked this fact to claim "the contract is no good" because the Beagle Boys "misrepresented their cargo".
Subverted in the chapter "King of the Klondike"; when Scrooge needs money bad, he's forced to go to Soapy Slick for a loan. After Scrooge signs the contract, Soapy reveals that his contracts don't need fine print...just enough space to make changes wherever he wants, such as turning the 10 % interest rate to 100%.
In one Casper the Friendly Ghost story, "Powfinger", the small print in a contract magically shrinks to prevent anyone reading it.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: the kids have to sign a huge contract with very tiny fine print, which Wonka then uses as a justification for refusing Charlie his lifetime supply of chocolate. Of course, that turns out to be a Secret Test of Character. For bonus points, most of the fine print was in Latin!
In Bedazzled (2000), Brendan Fraser's character sells his soul to the Devil (Elizabeth Hurley) by signing a ridiculously huge contract without reading. Throughout the film, the Devil "reminds" him of various clauses from the contract, which is all news to him. Interestingly, the way out of the deal depends on him not having read the contract (i.e. he has to make a selfless wish). According to the Devil, no one ever reads the damned thing (pun intended).
A variation on this appears in The Santa Clause, where the border on Santa's business card is revealed to consist of a contract written in microscopic print, the general gist of which is that protagonist Scott Calvin is now Santa Claus, whether he likes it or not. And then in the sequel, an even more microscopic clause reveals that he has to get married or he'll lose his powers.
In The Flintstones, Fred signs a bunch of forms without reading them, and they turn out to be firing notices for all his friends. The dictabird even tells him, "Only an idiot signs something before reading it."
In Shrek Forever After, Shrek says he carefully looked over Rumpelstiltskin's contract, but Donkey reveals that you have to fold the paper origami-style to find the fine print, and the curse escape clause.
How is The Bible like an End User License Agreement? Because most people just accept it without reading it.
Good Omens: Crowley (a demon) actually sent a software user agreement to the guys downstairs in charge of the 'sell your soul' contracts with the note: "Learn, guys."
In one Star Trek Expanded Universe novels, Wesley Crusher ends up selling himself into slavery by signing a Ferengi contract without reading. He then sneaks into his owner's office and reads it, although it's written in barely understandable Legalese. The first clause of the contract actually forbids Wesley from reading it. He's afraid to run away, as that would be a contract violation, which is the highest crime among the Ferengi.
In one of Harry Harrison's The Stainless Steel Rat novels, the main character is forced to do something he's against, but his boss insists it's in his contract. In a slight subversion, James actually read the entire thing. The boss then points to a smudge at the end and uses a microscope to show him that it's actually an extra clause written in very fine print.
Jennifer Government features a guy signing a contract which includes stipulations that require him to murder several people, and severe penalties if he refuses or fails to do so. It was, however, less about fine print and more about fast talking him into signing the contract without reading it.
According to Harry, in the Dresdenverse, it's completely possible to sign away your soul or your firstborn in a contract. Therefore, wizards read contracts very carefully. And even then, the Loophole Abuse and Exact Words some malevolent characters would invoke is equally dangerous.
In Robert A. Heinlein's The Man Who Sold the Moon, Delos D. Harriman, "the last of the Robber Barons", mentions that the roadways he owns that are used by most of the population to commute and move goods have small print on the ticket that says that the company will only "attempt" to get them or their goods to their destination and if the company fails it is only liable to refund the price of the ticket. Using the roadway means agreeing with this. Harriman says he got idea when he worked as a clerk for the Western Union telegram service. By signing the front of a telegram form most people didn't realize they were agreeing to all the small print listed on the back of the form. Harriman read the back in his free time on the job and admired it. This sort of caveat is actually fairly common in contracts, in the form of a "force majure" clause that releases someone from a contractual obligation if uncontrollable circumstances make it impossible to comply.
In A Song of Ice and Fire, Tommen Baratheon is eventually made King of Westeros. It soon becomes clear that he's just a Puppet King controlled by his mother Cersei as all he does is sign and stamp royal decrees at her direction without reading them. Justified in that he's just an eight year old boy and has no idea what he is doing.
Live Action Television
In one episode of Eerie Indiana, Marshall and Simon review the credit-card contracts offered by a strange visitor. What looks like an ink smudge at the end of the contract turns out to be its fine print when viewed under a microscope, revealing that the contracts are actually deals with the Devil.
Peter in The Monkees episode "Dance, Monkee, Dance" is tricked into signing a lifetime contract at a dance studio after winning a free dance lesson.
In Brazilian show Caça Talentos, before signing with a network, the owner of a talent agency utilized a magnifying glass to search for loopholes. When the network owner decided to end the contract, he utilized a loophole in letters so small a small telescope was used.
El Chavo del ocho: Doña Florinda practically begged to be a victim of this trope. When she opened a "fonda" she insists calling a "restaurant", she barely read the rental contract. She didn't even know who her new landlord was before the first time he showed up to collect.
When Dick Roman makes a deal with Crowley, the King of Hell pulls a very long scroll out of his coat, and the two spend the night reading and revising with a red Sharpie.
Bobby, in Season 5 temporarily sold his soul to Crowley in order to help end the Apocalypse. Unfortunately, his contract says that Crowley only needs to make best efforts to return it. Luckily, Bobby successfully blackmails Crowley into rewriting the contract.
Ellery Queen: In "The Adventure of the Comic Book Crusader", Ellery despises the proposed Ellery Queen comic, but he is legally powerless to stop it because a clause in Ellery's contract stipulates that the company can license his likeness to use in any way they see fit.
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra story "Beethoven's Last Night" ends with Beethoven selling the rights to his Tenth Symphony to the Devil, in order to rescue the soul of a homeless girl. When the Devil triumphantly tries to destroy the symphony, he finds he can't; because of the way Fate worded the contract, the Devil actually purchased the Tenth Symphony of Beethoven's older brother, also named Ludwig, who died young.
In some versions of the RPG Paranoia, even the money comes with fine print attached.
PC: I believe that's my cue to sigh loudly and leave.
It turns out the fine print works both ways. Interpreting a wish to make someone disappear as a command to kill them counts as forcing the signer to fulfill the "singee must kill someone" term of the contract.
Used in Descent 2 to send the material defender on yet another suicide mission, while not paying him yet.
Dravis: If you've studied your standard mercenary agreement, you would notice that PTMC reserves the right to keep you on retainer for up to 72 hours, post-mission.
Material Defender: Dravis, you son of a …
Dravis: If you choose to decline further service, we may consider you in default of your contract, and your fee may be suspended, pending litigation. Good luck, Material Defender. Dravis out.
At one point in BioShock, Andrew Ryan calmly reads the contract of an employee he's murdering with poisonous gas. Specifically, the part that makes all of that employee's discoveries Ryan Industries property, which makes her aiding the hero a breach of contract and thus an act of treason.
Disclaimer: The Devil, being the Prince of Lies, is known to trick people from time to time.
In Schlock Mercenary, Kevyn works for a mercenary company that used to be owned by his sister. When he finds out she eloped when he wasn't looking, she notes that he's the one who will have to tell their mother about it, since she buried a few lines to that effect in the fine print of his contract.
Within the world of the Whateley Universe, magical contracts are binding even in the case of trickery, as Jobe finds out when Sara hides all of the nasty loopholes in the ending period with the letters stacked on top of each other.
The Halloween TV special The Devil And Daniel Mouse features a scene where a young singer tries to read all the fine print in the contract she's being offered by an evil record executive, but the contract-paper just keeps getting longer and longer and longer..
As quoted above, Chris Mclean from Total Drama will often use the fine print of his contracts to smuggle his way into getting what he wants.
Also played with in The Fairly OddParents, where the Pixies' contract regarding Cosmo has fine print, and the fine print has fine print.
Subverted in Regular Show: Coffee and his friend ask Mordecai and Rigby to sign a contract which asked that Mordecai and Rigby buy tickets to a concert for all four of them in exchange for Coffee's coffee. Rigby signs it after barely even looking at it, but it doesn't matter whether or not he read it because the contract was unable to be understood. It was the word "coffee" written over and over again, and a line at the bottom.
In South Park, episode "HUMANCENTiPAD," Kyle is apparently the only kid in South Park that doesn't read EULAs:
Butters: "By clicking 'Agree,' you are also acknowledging that Apple may sew your mouth to the butthole of another iTunes user. Apple and its subsidiaries may, if necessary, sew another person's mouth to your butthole, making you a being that shares one gastral tract." I'm going to click on...'Decline.'
Played with in an episode of Alvin and the Chipmunks. While in Japan, Alvin signs himself and his brothers up to perform in kabuki theater, not realizing that this means they'll have to dress like women. Simon demands to know why Alvin didn't read the contract.
Alvin: I can't. It's in Japanese.
Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi: Kaz added several loopholes in the contract he had the girls sign when he became their manager. Some of them were in Russian.
The Mask: Stanley once made a Deal with the Devil but didn't understand he literally sold his soul until the Devil came to collect. The Devil then offered to find anyone willing to sign away his soul within one hour. Practically everyone Stanley tried was clever enough to use a magnifying glass to search for loopholes. When one person (Peggy) was willing to sign, Stanley didn't have the guts to go through.
In the Transformers Generation One episode "Webworld", Cyclonus sends Galvatron to the asylum planet Torkulon for therapy to try to cure his madness. Cyclonus signs a lot of paperwork without reading it. If he had, he probably would have known that if the Torkuli judge a patient incurable, they will have the planetMind Rape the patient while giant bugs consume their brains, effectively lobotomizing them. Galvatron escapes and destroys the planet, then berates Cyclonus for not seeing that coming.
Subverted in a episode of Darkwing Duck; the studio claims something they want DW to do is in his contract; Darkwing points out he read the whole thing, including the fine print. Turns out the offending line is on the edge of the contract.note "We hold these truths to be self-evident, the studio is always right!?!"
An episode of Dudley Do-Right has Snidely Whiplash foreclosing a mortgage and forcing a woman out into the cold, producing a contract written on a very small piece of paper.
Snidely: You people are gonna have to learn to read the small print.
Woman: I can't even read the large print.
Snidely: Can I help it if there was a paper shortage?
Something of a subversion of this is common in online auction sites, such as eBay where a seller will post an item for sale, such as the box that a PSP came in and clearly label the sale as "just the box." Despite the clear and repeated disclaimer, such as "this is just for the box it came in, PSP not included," several people will bid the price up and purchase the empty box, then are disappointed when the box arrives without a PSP in it. It's possible that people bidding on such items have their blinders on. But if you think about it, why would somebody go on eBay and post a listing for an empty box, if not to give the impression that there was something in it? In many collecting communities, people deliberately will buy an empty box - for example, someone may own a near-Mint Generation 1 Optimus Prime but not the box. So he buys the box online to display in a fancy case behind the figure.
Certain offers found on Facebook promise free music downloads in return for signing up for a service that sends trivia or jokes to your phone. All you have to do is give them your phone number and fill in on their website the number they text to you. Don't even bother reading the fine print at the bottom of the page; after all, such an honest company would never tack on obscenely huge hidden charges to your phone bill! The same ads appear on television as well, usually for a horoscope, ringtone, or daily joke. The catch being is that they bill your phone bill directly either weekly or monthly if you don't request them to stop after you get your "free" one and they sell your number and can telemarket you for up to six months without violating the Do Not Call registry. If you think this is frustrating, take pity on the cell phone customer service people who have to explain to you what you signed up for.
Usually more in point: EULAs (End-User License Agreement. Who reads all of those?!)
Played with nicely by the author of Spybot S&D: "This is dedicated to the nicest girl I've known" rather than all of the legal jargons most EULAs use.
In some jurisdictions it would prove quite diffcult for a company to enforce their EULAs in court, because the buyer usually only gets to see the EULA when he/she installs the software, i.e. after buying it. Therefore, one cannot assume informed consent on the buyer's side.
Some of them include a clause that if you do not agree to it, you should bring the product back to the store. Whether said store will actually return your money, in the age of CD and DVD burners, is another matter entirely.note at least in the U.S. In other countries, the store are forced to accept the disk anyways, especially if the disk is defective, unless the store's policy states otherwise.
When EAs Origin DRM-Software was introduced with Battlefield 3, there was quite an uproar about the extend of rights given to EA in the EULA to install very invasive spyware on customers computers. Since an EULA falls under general terms and conditions in German law and any paragraph that would be considered "unexpected" in such contracts are automatically null and void. And since giving a company free rein to install spyware when all you wanted was to buy a game, this falls very much under "unexpected terms", so the installation would be illegal and a criminal offense. As a result several large electronic store chains offered to take the game back even when opened. It remains yet to be seen what will happen with Origin.
Google Chrome originally had the same EULA as everything else they had. It's fairly strict normally, but in context it basically said that they owned the Internet.
Actually, people misinterpreted one clause of the EULA as it giving Google the rights to anything you post. According to Google, it was just the right to display the information to people you intended to display it to. Either way they changed the clause to more clearly reflect the latter.
EULAs aren't really fine print, though; everything is written in the same font size. The reason for this is in most modern countries, putting anything important in fine print is a bad idea. Attempts to hide important clauses show bad faith, usually nullifying the contract if it harms the signer, but still valid if it harms the person who wrote it! Needless to say, savvy contract writers find other ways to hide the nasty.
The erotic visual novel Cross Days actually used it for good (and giggles). Pirated copies of the game have a trojan that added personal information of the user in a public website, and to take it down the users had to admit to illegally downloading the game.
In German contract law, there is a special section for "general terms and conditions" of purchase contracts, which are predefined by the seller and not negotiable, like store policies or the EULA of software. As it is not expected that customers understand or even read such contracts, or are even aware that they exist when they buy something in a store, the most important part of the law makes any terms or conditions that are "unexpected" in such a contract null and void. To discourage businesses from trying to sneak unexpected terms into a contract and hope most customers won't notice, the invalid paragraph is not replaced by the next best thing they are legally allowed to put into a contract, but by the absolute legal minimum which is usually highly benefical to the customer.
Funny or strange cases involving odd uses of fine print show up all the time in contract law classes. One case involved a company who included the words (paraphrased) 'Congratulations! If you read this you are eligible for a bonus! Just send your email to us!' in the middle of one of their online agreement contracts; a couple of people did so, and it turned out the company was serious, as they actually did receive free money out of it.
Another UK case involves GameStation, where, for an April Fool's joke, they included a clause in the contract for buying one of those games claiming that by agreeing to this EULA, you agree to surrender your soul to GameStation, all written in completely straight-faced legalese. There was an option to proceed without relinquishing your soul, and the few that chose this option (and therefore had read the terms thoroughly) received a £5 GBP voucher.
The iTunes EULA contains a line which reads: You also agree that you will not use these products for any purposes prohibited by United States law, including, without limitation, the development, design, manufacture or production of nuclear, missiles, or chemical or biological weapons.
That was, oddly, once technically meaningful (albeit very pro forma, and now obsolete). iTunes contains encryption technology, which under US law formerly made it classified as a weapon and subject to export and usage restrictions.
Van Halen's standard contract with venues famously included a hidden line specifying that a bowl of M&Ms be placed in the green room, with all the brown ones (or some such) taken out. However, this was an aversion in that the band wanted the line to be found. As David Lee Rothexplains, Van Halen's show was so big that there were extensive contract requirements for the venue, as well as many, many pages of safety requirements that the venue had to fulfill, due to the pyrotechnics, electronics and flying harness that the band used, effects that could cause serious injury or death if the requirements were not followed to the letter. The M&M's became a Secret Test to see if the promoter had actually read the contract before signing it. Brown M&M's (or no M&M's) meant they had to either line-check the contract or cancel the show.
It also made them decide they were free to do whatever they want to the guys who hired them. Generally, trash their rooms.
Zeca Pagodinho once signed a contract to become spokesman to a beer brand named "Nova Schin". He later claimed the clause he broke wasn't verbally agreed on and that he signed the contract without reading because he trusted them. A good deal of people in Brazil (the country where it happened) believes him to be either stupid or a liar.
Many countries have laws that put a minimum font size on the fine print, in order to guarantee that the average person is at least capable of reading the fine print.