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"I know of no method to secure the repeal of bad or obnoxious laws so effective as their stringent execution."
President Ulysses S. Grant, first inaugural address, 1869

Someone drives an Obstructive Bureaucrat or an entire bureaucracy crazy by simply being an Obstructive Bureaucrat, and following the rules to the l-e-t-t-e-r, making things increasingly inconvenient for the bureaucracy.

Sometimes overlaps with Beleaguered Bureaucrat, Department of Child Disservices, and Social Services Does Not Exist because they all involve the same problems. The employees are often overworked, underpaid, lack resources, and suffer the public’s wrath. They then turn into the Obstructive Bureaucrat and use the tactic to slow down the workload or get revenge on the people who make unreasonable demands.

Likely to backfire if used against the type that says Screw the Rules, I Make Them!

Contrast The Last DJ. Compare Zeroth Law Rebellion, Rules Lawyer, Suddenly Significant Rule, Lawful Stupid. Compare and contrast Loophole Abuse. May be a tactic of the Badass Bureaucrat.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • In The Devil is a Part-Timer!, Lucifer gets caught in a buy-up scam shortly after his Heel–Face Turn and racks up a lot of frivolous charges on Maoh's credit card, made worse because the company refuses to accept returns. Emilia comes to the rescue by pointing out that since Lucifer is considered a minor (with Maoh as his legal guardian), they can invoke the "cooling-off rule" and force the company to take their items back since he isn't legally old enough to make those kinds of purchases on his own.
  • One Piece: Overlapping with You Didn't Ask, Rob Lucci is a brutal spy and assassin who finds his General Failure boss Spandam to be completely insufferable. Yet his code of honor and absolute loyalty to the chain of command mean he can't do anything about it. Except when Spandam is trying to make his escape with Nico Robin, Lucci notices they're being followed down a secret passage, and fails to mention it or react in any way. When asked (angrily) why he didn't say anything, his response is a smug smile and "Because I wasn't ordered to."

    Comic Books 
  • Atomic Robo:
    • Atomic Robo and the Ghost of Station X has this regarding NASA, to a ridiculous degree.
      Charlie Bolden: Robo, this is NASA. There's thirty pages of protocol for using the bathroom in space. Thirty-six counting appendices. We do everything by the book.
    • When Tesladyne is being rebuilt, Sir Richard Branson applies the local homeowners' association stuff to prevent Robo from getting anything done, not helped by Robo's "recovery period" from his ridiculous time travel ordeal being spent cloistered in his lab letting the humans deal with it. Eventually, the noise complaints build up to the point where Branson can stop all work on the new heart of Tesladyne. He is, naturally, beaten through Vik and Lang applying regulation-fu; a simple majority vote can end it, and the homeowners' association consists of three people: Branson, Tesladyne, and Elon Musk, whose use of Nikola Tesla's name for his car company means that Tesladyne can apply pressure to him more or less at will.
  • At one point in The Transformers: More than Meets the Eye, Ultra Magnus — a bureaucrat to the core to the point where he has trouble pronouncing the word "fun" — engages a hostile alien race in battle by citing specific paragraphs of the Code of Interplanetary Conflict to determine whether or not they can legally claim that area of space.
  • In Transformers: TransTech, Cheetor and his officers do this frequently, in an attempt to do their best to do the right thing in a world where the rules would be otherwise weighted against the downtrodden. "Withered Hope" in particular has Airazor assisting the protagonists by resolving a large chunk of issues for them via some extremely creative Exact Words usage of obscure regulations.
  • Mr. Logic from Viz combines this with Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness. An example being upon hearing a shop assistant say "Everything's a pound", he immediately assumes that he could buy the entire contents of the shop for a pound, rather than costing one pound per individual item. He is told of his mistake, and then gets confused and tries to buy the cash register for a pound, only to be told it's not stock. He subsequently explains what the shop assistant should have said to him, before getting carried out by security.

    Fairy Tales 
  • In the Italian "Filagranate" (a Girl in the Tower tale, like Rapunzel), the heroine sees that the person who called her to let down her hair is a handsome young man, not the old witch — but figured since he had said the right words, she could lower it for him as well as for the witch.

    Fan Works 
  • Alternate Beginnings: Aisha uses a combination of malicious compliance and sleight-of-hand to give Mr Gladly a very bad morning. He tells her to spit out her gum and put her feet on the floor? She puts the gum on her shoe first. He tells her to stop and remove it, so she does — then palms it and starts chewing the other gum that she surreptitiously pulled out, making him think she's chewing the gum that was on her shoe a moment ago. He tells her to give him the gum immediately? She throws it right between his eyes.
    Absolute, dead silence fell.
    Silence broken only by the sounds of five teenagers trying desperately not to burst out laughing. And by the sounds, or so I presumed, of blood vessels popping in Mr Gladly's temples.
  • Androgyninja's A Dose of Venom: When Danzo comes storming in, demanding an audience with Tsunade, Shizune bluntly informs him that he'll have to make an appointment first. She swiftly makes clear that he will not intimidate her into bending or breaking the rules; if he wants to see the Lord Godaime, he must follow proper procedure.
  • A Brief History of Equestria: Wind Whistler versus Sullamander. The two had never gotten on, and as time went by Sullamander made increasingly insane and sexist decrees. Eventually Wind Whistler got out the Articles of Command, the Pegasus' Great Big Book of Everything, and told Sullamander that the rules did in fact give Wind Whistler full clearance to run her through with a sword. note 
  • The Chosen Six: When Umbridge starts to cause trouble at Hogwarts, Percy uses malicious compliance to mess with her: the day she requests reforms for her office, Percy forces her to go through the entire paperwork required for it, while when another teacher requested the same, Percy did the entire thing in one day.
  • Harry Potter: Master of Malicious Compliance: Harry turns it into an art form. For example: When Hermione's dad calls the Dursleys to check that Harry's fine, Petunia passes him the phone and instructs him to tell "exactly how nicely they've been treating him", he complies by telling Mr. Granger exactly how they're treating him, including the bits about being locked up and not fed properly.
  • After being pressured to take the high road, Marinette decides to do just that. Not only does she pretend to believe all Lila's lies and cater to her every whim, she does so in ways that force the rest of the class to comply, such as coming up with a special seating chart that inconveniences everyone else, but caters to all of Lila's claimed disabilities. Since Marinette is being nice and helpful, she has Miss Bustier's full support, with her shaming anyone who dares complain about the changes. After several months of this, the class has seen through Lila, reaches boiling point, and explodes. Marinette is outwardly heartbroken by the "reveal" that Lila was lying to them, while laughing hysterically on the inside.
  • In Horizon: Star Driven, one of the various ways Izuku gets away with the various arguably illegal things is that he registers for every license he thinks he would need.
    • Various restrictions have been placed in the advancement in technology that could fall under the definition of "Support Gear" since villains acquiring it can spell massive disaster... but sports gear doesn't count, so Izuku files his Hover Board as a form of sports gear, a fact that he can get away with after he applies for an Experimental Testing License.
    • Since "violation of airspace" is considered a crime, Izuku went and registered himself into the Musutafu Airspace Ministry so that he could test his hoverboard legally.
  • In Implacable, Taylor engages in blatant Malicious Compliance to get back at the Protectorate for strong-arming her into joining the Wards as a Probationary member. Among other examples, she takes advantage of the fact that Wards only have to work two hours a day (unless explicit written orders are handed to her) to punch-out even mid-patrol. She also exploits Crying Wolf by asking for so many bathroom breaks during training that when she tells Aegis she has to be somewhere else (an appointment with her PRT handler), he doesn't believe her.
    Aegis: Wait, she really did have to be somewhere?
    Taylor: I did tell you.
  • The Infinite Loops makes this Harry Potter's modus operandi when dealing with his enemies. Meanwhile, Mayor Mare has made this her specialty, managing to stop the Vogons from blowing up Equestria with it.
  • This is Harry's primary weapon in Inspected by #13 when he ends up becoming The Dreaded Badass Bureaucrat as a last-ditch effort to survive the Tri-Wizard Tournament.
  • Last Rights: Attempted twice to keep the Kobali from getting Senior Chief Security Officer Athezra Darrod's mortal remains so they can turn him into one of them. Failed both times.
    • Tuvok tells Eleya that unless she can find some legal justification to keep the Kobali from getting three of her dead crew members, they'll get them. She finds a will for one of them specifying cremation, and another's family wants the body shipped home, but Athezra has no living family, didn't leave a will, and was a secular Foundation Reformist where religion was concerned.
    • Tess suggests invoking the Prime Directive and washing their hands of the Kobali altogether since the Vaadwaur have a legitimate grievance (in the canon game the Kobali have been using Vaadwaur soldiers in stasis as reproductive stock). Eleya says the brass will never go for it and even if they did, what happens when the Vaads start using Kobali resurrection tech?
      Tess: Ouch, good point.
  • In Lighting Up The Dark, Naruto finds out about a secret rigged trial for Kakashi, and tries to get evidence to clear him, but is short on time and only a genin. The ANBU receptionist, however, decides to help him, out of loyalty to Kakashi, and uses bureaucracy both to smooth the way for him (by identifying special emergency exemptions he can use) and hinder ROOT from interfering (by tying them up in paperwork).
    ROOT ninja: These documents are filled out to every last specification you gave us! Now, for the last time, you are to hand over prisoner Onigahara Tariki to us immediately for urgent transfer to Root facilities! We are not going back to get these forms redone again!
    Yukari: Of course, sir. Let me take a look. Now, I see you've submitted them in triplicate, with the date in the top right hand corner in the correct order, signed and countersigned by the relevant authorities with name readings provided in the appropriate format...Thank you. Now, I will be happy to take you through to the main complex to carry out your request... as soon as you correct this error here.
    ROOT ninja: What?!
    Yukari: Section 71, paragraph 4, clause 9 of the Rules and Regulations of the Assassination and Battle Tactics Special Unit clearly stipulates that forms referring to prisoners originally from the Village Hidden in the Mist must list their names in both standard script and Traditional Mist characters, for reasons of compatibility with other document databases.
    ROOT ninja: But Traditional Mist characters haven't been used for generations! There probably isn't anyone outside Mist who can even read them!
    Yukari: I'm sorry for your inconvenience, sir. Before you leave, I should remind you that any action likely to reveal Mist missing-nin Onigahara Tariki's presence in Leaf to Mist authorities, including requesting the Traditional Mist characters used in writing his name, would be deemed an act of treason if performed without the authorisation of the Hokage's Office.
  • Mass Effect: Human Revolution: Played both ways between Jensen and Executor Palin. Jensen ignored orders to cease the Saren investigation but then pointed out that Palin had only declared the case was closed and had failed to go through the necessary channels to make the order official, so Jensen technically didn't do anything wrong. However, that technicality didn't stop Palin from suspending Jensen for a week without pay for another technicality regarding his investigation. Then, finally, Palin fills out the needed paperwork so Jensen answers directly to him.
  • Nine Minutes: Smoker refuses to arrest Tashigi after she declares herself a Straw Hat as he's currently relieved of authority due to his tribunal.
  • The Harry Potter fanfic Quidditch Tales sees many exploitations of this with Umbridge's educational decrees, generally with students using an interconnected network of manor trunks procured by Harry to do things that are forbidden under the educational decrees.
  • Scarlet Lady: After dealing firsthand with Mayor Bourgeois abusing his station by ordering him to ignore proper protocol — then firing him for refusing to comply — Officer Raincomprix proceeds to look up precisely what the Mayor of Paris is legally capable of. Chloé is caught completely off-guard when he informs her of this after she attempts to get her way by invoking her father's name.
  • The Harry Potter Fanfic The Sleeper Awakes has Percy Weasley, of all people, pulling this on Umbridge and her Muggle-Born Registration Commission and making their job much harder by "just doing his job according to the Ministry rules."
  • This Bites!: After Vivi paralyzes Spandam, his Marine escort calmly stand back and wait for him to recover as he's the only one allowed to open the Gates of Justice.

    Films — Animation 
  • In The Incredibles, Bob Parr would like to help his customers navigate Insuricare's labyrinthine policies to receive their insurance coverage, but he can't. As a side effect, this makes his boss absolutely furious because Bob's actions are making it so Insuricare can't weasel out of paying legitimate claims.
    Mr. Huff: They're penetrating the bureaucracy!
  • In The Twelve Tasks of Asterix, the heroes pull this on the obstructive bureaucrats at The Place That Sends You Mad by asking for a permit that doesn't exist, driving the whole place into disarray as everyone scrambles to make sense of a whole new set of rules, forms, and circulars that nobody has heard of.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In Brazil, Sam keeps the Central Services workers out of his apartment (for a while, at least) by asking to see their form 27B/6, claiming he's "a bit of a stickler for paperwork." From their reactions, it's pretty clear it's a bureaucratic formality they usually gloss over. Later shot back in Lowry's face when the same workers not only arrive with the proper paperwork made but with extra forms that allow them to kick Lowry out of his apartment and completely demolish it for "emergency repairs" that they have no desire of ever finishing in revenge.
  • Crackerjack: After being expelled from the club, Jack returns and gleefully points out that under Rule #17, he can't be expelled until the next meeting of the committee, which isn't for another month.
  • In A Few Good Men, Lt. Kaffee's Establishing Character Moment mixes this with softball practice. Another navy attorney threatens to have one of his clients put in the brig for 30 days for possession of oregano (which he bought thinking it was marijuana). Kaffee — while hitting fungoes to his softball team of Navy lawyers — gets him to plea bargain down to a summary 15 days of restricted duty by threatening to have him buried in paperwork if he asks for jail time.
    Kaffee: Dave, I tried to help you out of this, but if you ask for jail time, I'm going to file a motion to dismiss.
    Spradling: You won't get it.
    Kaffee: I will get it. And if the MTD is denied, I'll file a motion in limine seeking to obtain evidentiary ruling in advance, and after that, I'm gonna file against pre-trial confinement, and you're gonna spend the next three months going blind on paperwork because a Signalman Second Class bought and smoked a dime bag of oregano.
  • The Great Silence: The By-the-Book Cop sheriff insists on an exhumation and series of reports before he will lay Loco the bounty on Pauline’s husband (who she buried before the official identification) while smirking at Loco, who has spent their screen time offending the sheriff with his ruthless string of legally justified murders.
  • In Killing Them Softly, Mickey explains to Jackie that before coming to Boston, he killed someone from the wrong jurisdiction and, per the family's rules, he's only "allowed" to take on one of Jackie's two planned killings. Of course, Mickey isn't actually trying to be subversive; he's just lazy.
  • In Old School, the Dean is furious that the fraternity (of white-collar professionals in their thirties) has gone through all the necessary legal channels to continue their lifestyle. The Dean's assistant notes that they're very good at filling out forms.
  • In The Pentagon Wars, Lt. Col. Burton (Cary Elwes) keeps trying to report the deadly flaws in the Bradley Fighting Vehicle but is consistently thwarted by his superior, Maj. Gen. Partridge (Kelsey Grammer). After consulting the U.S. Army Book of Rules & Regulations, Burton publishes a report detailing the vehicle's every flaw and sends it to Partridge. Partridge orders the report rewritten to make the Bradley seem perfect. Burton follows regulations and writes a memo on the rewrite and sends it to all 198 people involved in the project. Partridge is furious and wants Burton disciplined, but his underlings tell him that Burton followed regulations to the letter.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: While normally pirates treat the Pirate Code as "more of a guideline," in the third movie, Jack is able to use the Code to his advantage during the meeting of the Brethren Court. He calls for a vote to elect a Pirate King, to the annoyance of everyone present — all it takes is a simple plurality vote, but all the captains always vote for themselves and it ends in a tie. As usual, everyone votes for themselves... until Jack votes for Elizabeth, giving her a second vote and winning her the crown. Despite complaints, they all go along with it. It probably helps that Captain Teague, the Keeper of the Code, was sitting right there.
    [everyone argues loudly about Jack's actions]
    Jack: Am I to understand that you lot will not be keeping with the Code, then?
    [Captain Teague snaps a guitar string]
    [everyone immediately settles down]
  • In The Terminal, Viktor Navorski's home country goes through a civil war, rendering his passport useless. He can't go back home, and he can't step onto U.S. soil. Frank Dixon, the U.S. immigration officer, hopes that Viktor will try to break the rules by leaving the airport, which would make Navorski someone else's problem -- not his. Viktor doesn't, making him something of a Spanner in the Works. This was based on the Real Life Mehran Karimi Nasseri, who became trapped by the Iranian Revolution in Charles de Gaulle Airport, where he lived for 18 years.

  • A Chilean folktale tells of a "roto" (kind of a country bumpkin) who sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for cash. When the Devil asks him when it should come pick up his soul, the roto tells him to do so the following day. Surprised, the Devil writes the agreement, saying that he'll take the soul "the next day". They meet daily for a while, the roto arguing that well, the contract says "next day", and that's tomorrow.
  • In a similar Russian story, the devil is repeatedly told "Come tomorrow", then decides to skip a day in frustration, and when he comes again, he sees a sign "Come yesterday".

    Game Shows 
  • When James Acaster was on Taskmaster, he had a Running Gag of never responding to Alex's greeting during tasks. Alex will say hello and James will walk past in dead silence and read the task. One episode, whilst filling a pair of chest waders with water, Alex asks James why he does this. James answers "It's not in the task."

  • Atlas Shrugged. When Dagny comes back from Galt's Gulch she cooperates with her brother for the first time and follows his every rule. He complains that she's never been so uncooperative in her life.
  • In The Berenstain Bears and the Dress Code, the principal is going on vacation and the vice-principal is made acting principal in his absence. He takes the opportunity to pass a strict new dress code which angers the students so they stage protests by wearing the most outrageous clothes they can but which are not prohibited by the new code. The new principal tries to pass one Obvious Rule Patch after another to no avail. The whole thing threatens to blow up until the town debate when Brother Bear presents a slideshow which shows the vice principal and numerous other adults wearing their own ridiculous clothes from their own youth. Fortunately the real principal arrived at that time and immediately repealed the dress code stating that the vice-principal had only been experimenting with something new which is what learning is all about.
  • Discworld:
    • It's suggested that golems (who tend to parody various robot-related tropes) rebel by ceaselessly and repeating fulfilling their last assigned task until they are free. This has the side effect of convincing people that they are stupid and/or insane.
    • As Vimes points out in Night Watch Discworld, The Oath of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch has a lovely little loophole in it: the duties of a Watchman are to "... uphold the Laws and Ordinances of the city of Ankh-Morpork comma serve the public trust comma and defend the subjects of His stroke Her bracket delete whichever is inappropriate bracket Majesty bracket name of reigning monarch bracket..." - but nothing about obeying orders. Another loophole in this oath was that the oathtaker promises to protect the subjects of his / her majesty, but doesn't say anything about defending the majesty themselves.
      • And in the main plot, Vimes uses this to rein in the Cable Street Particulars of the past (in his own time, the Particulars have been revived as a plainclothes division for occasions when stealth and espionage are required). There are numerous protocols in place to ensure the fair treatment of prisoners, but for the longest time, the Particulars have been entirely ignoring protocol because their reputation is so nasty that even other coppers are afraid of them. Vimes is able to take Refuge in Audacity and hobble the Particulars just by insisting on following protocol to the letter.
      • A few of the Treacle Mine Road Watchmen try to pull this on Vimes (presumably to indirectly get him out of the way, since he's been shaking up the status quo), but it doesn't last very long.
    • In Jingo, the City Watch comes under the command of Lord Rust, after the Patrician is forced out of office. Vimes and the rest of the Watch resign on the spot. Then Vimes points out that, as a nobleman (technically), he has the right to raise a personal militia for the upcoming war, and proceeds to do so, which just happens to include all his former City Watch subordinates...
  • At the end of The Dresden Files book Ghost Story the threat of this is used against Queen Mab to enable the person she's trying to ensnare to still be able to act independently. Specifically, if Harry suspects that Mab has screwed with his mind in any way, he'll follow her orders to the letter — but only that, so that she will have to personally order him to do anything and everything, when he knows she really wants a Knight who is clever and will act on his own initiative.
  • The main character of Ella Enchanted adopts this as a lifestyle. She is required by magic to obey all orders given to her and finds this spectacularly annoying. So when those orders are not the sort that will harm anyone, she will obey those orders right down to the dregs, just to spite the person giving them. When ordered to sing louder, she practically shouts. When then ordered to sing more quietly, she drops to a whisper, and so forth.
  • A villain in Ex-Heroes has mind control powers but must phrase all commands verbally, which gives the heroes an out if they can find a way to apply this trope. St. George manages to effect a rescue despite being told he can neither "be the hero" nor "win", reasoning that he doesn't want to do either of those things, he just wants to save the girl. Later, Stealth, under orders to report and neutralize any potential threats to the mind controller's person, allows him to be attacked via some really fine-point logic-chopping: she was aware of the attacker the whole time and could have easily stopped the attack, therefore it posed no threat at all until the attacker made their move, at which point it was no longer a potential threat but an actual threat — and she had no orders regarding potential non-threats or actual threats.
  • In Heinlein's Glory Road he said there are two kinds of military clerks. The first kind will quote the regulation that prohibits you from doing what you want. The second will dig into the book until they find one that helps you. He must have liked this one, because he mentioned it again almost word-for-word in The Door into Summer, this time about payment.
  • Harry Potter:
    • In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Dolores Umbridge uses her political pull from the Ministry of Magic to "legally" put herself in supreme control of everything at Hogwarts, passing rafts of edicts forbidding any of the other professors from teaching topics she doesn't approve, keeping around professors she doesn't like, or really doing anything not officially sanctioned by the Ministry. Of course, when Peeves and the Weasley twins start wreaking havoc (at the possible suggestion of Dumbledore), the teachers just sit by and let it happen, claiming that they weren't sure they had the authority to do anything about it. For bonus points, at one point Harry not only sees Professor McGonagall walk straight past while Peeves is trying to mess with a chandelier but he swears he hears her whisper "It unscrews the other way."
    • Also in the film version, Harry's Ironic Echo when Umbridge is confronting the centaurs: she begs him to tell them she's harmless, to which he replies, "I'm sorry, Professor, but I must not tell lies."
    • Dumbledore also manages to piss Umbridge off when she fires Trelawney by pointing out that although she has the power to fire teachers at Hogwarts, it doesn't mean she can also evict Trelawney from her home there, as the authority to decide the actual residency in the castle still lies with the Headmasternote . He follows it up by reminding her that her right to hire staff applies only if he himself is unsuccessful in finding someone to fill the position and hires Firenze (a centaur, of which Umbridge is terrified) on the spot to take over as Divination teacher.
    • After Harry gives an account of Voldemort's return to a newspaper, Umbridge's latest decree is that it is forbidden for teachers to discuss anything not related to their subject with students. Lee Jordan points out that by her own decree, she's not allowed to yell at him for playing Exploding Snap in class, as that has nothing to do with her subject. She doesn't take it well.note 
  • Jested about In Andre Norton's Ice Crown. One of Imfray's men, after rescuing him from his execution for treason, claims that he never heard an order saying he's no longer his commander, so it was his duty; Imfray points out that he must have heard it just before; the man says he's been hard of hearing ever since Imfray rescued him from a rock fall. Imfray carries on the joke with an observation that hearing loss could see him out of the guard, and the man assures him that if anyone knows he was involved, it did.
  • In The Lost Fleet, John Geary at one point deals with a request by his Obstructive Bureaucrat higher-ups to provide "any information related" to a decision he made. He responds by rationalizing that since all of it had some relevance to his decision-making process, and giving them an infodump of everything in the entire fleet database in a single file. This takes several minutes for the entire combined computing power of the whole alliance fleet, and he wonders if it might crash their servers. Even if it didn't it would be functionally impossible to dig through the entire mess of information to find anything to use against him.
  • In the Modesty Blaise novel The Night of Morningstar, Modesty foils a villainous plot and saves the lives of the British Prime Minister, not to mention several other major world leaders. In the aftermath, Sir Gerald's Obstructive Bureaucrat boss orders him to have Modesty sign a non-disclosure agreement binding her to serious penalties if she tells anyone about the incident. Sir Gerald knows that she can be trusted not to be indiscreet without signing anything and that she will refuse to sign on principle, but he also knows that his boss won't listen if he says so. Another thing he knows about his boss is that he always insists on conversations being reported verbatim, which gives him a plan of action: He goes to Modesty and conveys his order, carefully writes down her response, and returns to London, where his boss asks him how it went and he dutifully reports exactly where she told his boss to shove the NDA. In the middle of a briefing with the Prime Minister.
  • In Robert A. Heinlein's The Number of the Beast, Jake's family decides to pull a White Mutiny (see below under Work to Rule) in order to pay him back for antics during Zeb's and Hilda's tenures as commanding officer and make sure he doesn't pull the same stuff when it's Deety's turn. Specifically, they do exactly what he says and no more, even things that were implied in the order, but not stated. note  This forces him to micro-manage everything.
  • Tisiphone and Cerberus of Ravirn, both under orders to kill the title character, invoke this to allow him to free Persephone. When he escapes into Hades proper from the borderlands, Cerberus refuses to chase him because his job is to guard the borders, and Tisiphone insists on a strict interpretation of jurisdiction that prevents her and the other Furies from entering Hades at all.
  • Reborn as a Space Mercenary: I Woke Up Piloting the Strongest Starship!: In volume 2, the vampish Lieutenant Commander Serena Holz tries to force Hiro into going on a date with her by casting it as a working lunch. Hiro manages to turn it back on her when Elma, one of his current two Bridge Bunnies, calls his terminal at an opportune moment: he invites her and Mimi to lunch with them, arguing to Serena that if it's work-related there's no reason not to bring his crew members along.
  • Sharpe: while Sharpe is a badass front-line soldier usually found in the midst of a fight and initially illiterate, then merely functionally literate (later in the series, he's fluent in French and Spanish and surprisingly well read), he's also a former career NCO with extensive and unwanted experience as a Quartermaster with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the King's Regulations. As a result, he can apply this trope with truly malicious precision to demonstrate his displeasure. As his commanding officer and very old friend William Lawford (who's trying to teach Sharpe a lesson in humility and make him apologise for insulting another officer) complains in despair, he can't really reprimand him, because technically, he's done nothing worthy of being reprimanded and instead they have to endure the most passive-aggressive obedience imaginable.
  • In Mary Johnstone's To Have and To Hold, the king sends word to the colony officials that they must send back Runaway Fiancée Lady Jocelyn and any man so rash as to marry her, which is to say Captain Percy. The officials object that this is irregular — the king must order the company to have her sent, and then the company must order its colony to do so. Captain Percy's friends work on him in court, and his next message to bless their union.
  • Vorkosigan Saga:
    • Used for a last-minute save in Falling Free. The genetically-engineered quaddies having been legally defined as "post-fetal experimental tissue cultures," Captain Bannerji refuses to fire on them on the grounds that it could be considered an act of hazardous waste disposal, for which the proper forms have not been filled out.
    • In A Civil Campaign, Aral sponsors a bill making it easier for peasants to change from one Feudal Overlord to another. This naturally increases the rent and tax incomes of the more popular ones. One Count decided to breed several dozen girls in artificial wombs — a newly imported technology — to increase his district's population without having to improve his rule in any way. Though it was considered obviously wrong to exploit mass-produced children, he argued that he'd used his own genetic material for their paternal contribution, note  and they were therefore technically his daughters. The "mothers" (women who'd donated ova to clinics and such) weren't consulted at any stage of the proceedings and just about all of them were singularly uninterested in asserting any claim on the children. There's no rule against a man having a very large family, after all, and whether the current law means his use of the eggs can be considered theft is ambiguous at best — they can prevent future occurrences, but he will get off scot-free for his existing actions (another legal approach based on the logic that he essentially impregnated a hundred girls without their permission fell apart when they found that the local definition of rape didn't include non-consensual in-vitro fertilization). Ekaterin provided a solution by pointing out that if they are his daughters, he could be required to pay a dowry for each and every one of them — at a level to be determined at the discretion of the Emperor. The last we see is him screaming in rage right after the judgement is handed to him.
  • In the X-Wing Series novel Isard's Revenge, we meet a sympathetic Star Destroyer commander who was ordered to bombard a village because one of its inhabitants tried to kill the local warlord. So the commander took a shuttle down to the village to tell everyone how doomed they were, going on in great detail about his firing plans, and explaining that as soon as he got back to his ship, their homes would be flattened by turbolasers. Then he got back in his shuttle and called up his officers to go over the firing plan again. And then had them calibrate the sensors and weapons. Then do another weapons check, so the show of force would be absolutely perfect. Three hours later he finally went back to his Star Destroyer and proceeded to annihilate the long-since-empty village. The commander spun his report to emphasize how the survivors would be sure to spread their terrible story, and the warlord didn't kill him but warned him not to fail him again. The commander would go on to accept "insubordinate" officers from the warlord's other crews who would otherwise be executed, and eventually surrendered to the New Republic.

    Live-Action TV 

  • Babylon 5:
    • In "By Any Means Necessary", Sinclair's superiors invoke the Rush Act, giving the military CO of the station (Commander Sinclair) authority to end a dockworkers' strike by any means necessary. They obviously expect this to mean Sinclair will quell the strike by force; Sinclair, however, determines that the means necessary to end the strike involve drawing money from the station's defense budget to raise the dockers' wages so they'll go back to work, justifying it by saying that the smooth operation of the docks is necessary to the station's defense.
      Commander Sinclair: You should never hand someone a gun unless you're sure where they'll point it. Your mistake.
    • A few episodes later, in the episode "Eyes", Sinclair tries this again against the Inquisitor Colonel sent to evaluate him and his crew. He does this because Colonel Ben Zayn seems bent on having him run off the station. (He's right; the investigating officer wants the Commander's chair for himself.) At first, it seems to work, but the colonel eventually manages to out-Rule-Fu him, forcing Sinclair to change tack.
    • In "Point of No Return", Captain Sheridan effectively buys time to shut down the pro-Earth (and officially unofficial) Nightwatch by careful use of this trope. The orders he'd received give Nightwatch a frankly scary array of powers and authority but had come from the Political Office, rather than through Earth Alliance military channels. He refuses to implement his orders because they're from outside his chain of command. (This can only buy time, as Nightwatch is one of President Clark's pet projects, and he is in the chain of command. Commander-in-Chief, to be precise.)
    • Babylon 5 really seems to like this trope. Another episode has EarthDome trying to charge Sheridan and Ivanova 5 credits a month each rent for extra space in their officers' quarters. After Sheridan's protests fail to accomplish anything, he deducts ten credits a month from the budget for military preparedness and applies it against the rent, on the grounds that he's not prepared to fight anyone until he's had a decent night's sleep in his own damn bed.
  • In one episode of Bachelor Father, Bentley Gregg's houseboy Peter Tong falls under the sway of his corrupt cousin Charlie, joining and becoming president of the Benevolent Society of Chinese Houseboys. When Peter goes on strike, Bentley decides to capitulate, following the B.S.C.H. labor contract to the letter. He installs a time-clock and a bell to hurry Peter through his duties, running him ragged. Peter gets a bigger paycheck at the end of the week, but after cousin Charlie takes his B.S.C.H. cut he winds up with much less than before. Peter promptly dissolves the B.S.C.H., and gives cousin Charlie an honest job as an "automatic dishwasher."
  • Barney Miller:
    • In the episode "Voice Analyzer", honest but excitable Wojo completely flunks a quote-unquote voluntary, definitely-not-a-lie-detector device just by doing the calibration questions. Dietrich responds by insisting on doing the test (after being reminded that it wasn't mandatory) and feeds it a series of Blatant Lies without setting it off once. Barney goes a step further and forces Scanlon to back down by not volunteering, as the refusal of the squad's captain would make a significant statement—that, and Scanlon's outrage sends the machine into overdrive.
    • Similarly, in "The Slave", Wojo manages to trap a Burmese politician holding a man in debt bondage by pointing out that the diplomatic immunity doesn't cover the uninsured car the debt-slave was driving.
  • The Big Bang Theory: When Leonard starts dating Raj's sister Priya, she reviews the convoluted and (somewhat) draconian Roommate Agreement that Sheldon forced Leonard to sign upon moving in. She finds that it is riddled with loopholes that enable Leonard to gleefully invoke this and get revenge on Sheldon.
  • Cheers: One episode has a bunch of construction workers, angered by Rebecca charging them for beer, performing a slow-down outside the bar, making a job that should've taken a day last a month.
  • One episode of Corner Gas has Davis and Karen using "Work to rule" as a form of protest. When they tell the mayor they're working "By the book", the mayor happily gives them a copy of the rule book, which is an encyclopedia-sized tome. Since they normally do barely any work at all, this only ends up vastly increasing their workload.
  • Doc Martin: PC Penhale runs a Loan Shark who's posing as an antiques dealer out of town. He doesn't have enough evidence of the man's criminal activities to arrest him, so instead he tells him to leave Portwenn and never return or Penhale will give his run-down van a very, very thorough road-worthiness inspection.
  • In The Doctor Blake Mysteries, Lucien uses his Smoky Gentlemen's Club's own rule book to prove that he is allowed to hang a painting of a nude in the club's main lounge.
  • A major point in F Troop was the Captain using the rule book to determine everything, including "Sunrise, How to determine for shooting people at" and refusing to believe in vampires since "They're not mentioned in the manual."
  • A French Village: Daniel and other French officials who don't like what's going on will be sticklers for the rules as a means of obstruction. This only somewhat works though, as a lot of times they're simply ignored.
  • In one episode of Grange Hill, the students decided to attempt to stage a strike in school. When that failed, they went to the school rule book, of which they stole a copy from one of the teachers. The rule they picked was "Students must always walk in the hallways." So, they started always walking in the hallways - including walking when they should've actually been in class. When that tactic failed, they resorted to a second perambulatory rule, which was "Students must always walk on the left." This gave them an excuse to take the long way around to get from one classroom to the classroom immediately to its right, by walking on the left of the hall all the way around the school. Again the teachers were not happy, and all student-owned copies of the rule book were confiscated. Apparently only the teachers were supposed to know the exact wording of the rules; the students only got to know when they'd broken one.
  • In one Christmas episode of Home Improvement, the neighborhood tries to limit Tim's usual over the top displays by putting strict limits on the power and current he's allowed to use. However, Tim's mother in law has a new boyfriend this year, a retired electrician. He suggests to Tim that he can use this trope by doubling the voltage and still obey the limits on power and current.
  • When the main characters on Law & Order arrest a prison guard, the other guards show solidarity by refusing to transfer prisoners for arraignment unless the paperwork is perfect. On the first day, the arraignment judge manages to arraign less than an eighth of the defendants on his docket.
  • Captain Sharon Raydor proves adept at this in Major Crimes, having previously worked in internal affairs. Case in point: On one occasion when she had no legal reason to hold a gang member to keep him from avenging his brother, she was able to create one by questioning him past his parole-mandated curfew.
  • In the Murdoch Mysteries two-parter "The Long Goodbye", Station House No. 4 comes under the authority of a new inspector who goes on a crusade, ordering regular sweeps of vagrants, nightclub patrons (even fully licenced clubs) and so on, on the basis that such people must have broken some of Toronto's morality laws. Murdoch quits in disgust, but Crabtree and Higgins can't afford to. They do, however, hit on the idea of assuming Edwards' sweeps should also apply to the great and the good, arresting half the Board of Control for clay-pigeon shooting on a Sunday, and telling them to take it up with their superior. Edwards has the case thrown out and stricken from the record, but it still appears in the papers to embarrass him.
  • In one episode of Night Court, dozens of cases would be dismissed at midnight if they aren't adjudicated due to overcrowding. When they get to the last one, a drunk driving case, the defendant refuses to waive reading the charges in court, since the paperwork listing them runs three full pages and there's under a minute to go. Dan Fielding, faced with losing one of his conquests, speedreads the charges in just enough time for Judge Harry to rule "case remanded to the Grand Jury!" and bang his gavel before the clock strikes 12.
  • An episode of The Phil Silvers Show featured Sgt Bilko's superiors trying to deal with him by pushing him into the Military Police to stop his various cons. Bilko deals with this by arresting everyone he can for the smallest infraction of the rules. On one occasion when one woman mocks his tone of voice for saying he's just following the rules, Bilko has her arrested for impersonating an officer.
  • In the Red Dwarf episode "Quarantine", after Kryten corrects him on one too many Space Corps Directives, Rimmer reads the entire book of directives himself and uses them to make Lister, Cat, and Kryten's lives into a living hell. Notably, he uses Exact Words to make everything worse; Space Corps directives say crewmembers in quarantine must be given films, literature, games, and pastimes — it doesn't say the media have to be any good (a knitting magazine and a DIY video) or the games have to be playable (a chess-set with almost all the pieces missing and a completed crossword book). Kryten figures they can use this against him, but by the time Kryten realizes this, Rimmer's... gone a little peculiar.
  • Used in an episode of Scrubs when the nursing staff declared a "slow down" until their demands were met. Kelso specifically states that they'll work just fast enough that he can't fire them for it. And that he doesn't really have to worry about it because they won't do anything to hurt the patients.
  • In the Stargate SG-1 episode "Heroes, Part 1", Hammond makes it clear to Bregman that he intends to follow his orders concerning the documentary to the letter and won't allow the camera crew access to anything that isn't specifically mentioned as being cleared. That includes all current missions.
  • The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Ensigns of Command" features Captain Picard turning this tactic against the Sheliak, Obstructive Bureaucrats. He wants them to give him time to properly move a settlement away from a planet that the Sheliak are going to take over. They refuse to give him anywhere near enough time. Checking over the incredibly complicated rules they agreed to, he points out that he is permitted to request a neutral third party to arbitrate the discussion. They acknowledge his request, and he picks a race that is currently hibernating, meaning the Sheliak can either be stuck waiting for several months, or Know When to Fold 'Em and just give Picard the week or two he originally suggested. When the Sheliak protest, he declares the treaty void and cuts off communication, then leaves their hail unanswered for quite a few seconds longer than necessary to make his point clear, not to mention pay them back for the grief they've given him throughout the episode.
  • Star Trek: Strange New Worlds: In "Those Old Scientists", Mariner says she knows a lot of Starfleet codes and regulations so she can use them to slack off whenever she feels like it without breaking any rules. She uses one rule of officers taking regular labor breaks to convince Uhura to spend a few minutes in the bar.
  • Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye: In "The Holocaust Survivor", Obstructive Bureaucrat Randy denies Myles' expense reimbursement for a rental car. The group decides to get back at him by drowning him in expense vouchers for cheap, mundane things that they bought out of pocket, each on a separate form.
    Sue: I used three sheets of a yellow pad at home last night for FBI business. That should be three vouchers.
  • In The West Wing, Donna and Margaret attempt this after Leo brushes off their concerns about the West Wing's compliance with carpal tunnel syndrome regulations due to all the typing the assistants do (with the claim that the White House is exempt from such regulations) with "Type slower." Donna gets all the aides, including Margaret, to do just that. Unfortunately for them, it's subverted, however, with Leo's stony "I-am-but-seconds-from-firing-you" glare upon finding out about this from Margaret ("Margaret, look at my face right now.") prompts her to immediately capitulate.

  • Frequently in Cabin Pressure, Martin will insist that something be done "by the book." The people he tells this usually demonstrate just why he doesn't want them to do so.
  • One of Denis Norden's Feghoots on My Word! explained how he worked his exit from the army with pedantically exact interpretations of his superior officers' orders, often based on his Drill Sergeant Nasty's pronunciation. For example, on being told to "quick march" (which came out as "Quick Hutch!"), he went AWOL and hid in a cupboard for several weeks, his argument being that "hutch" is a verb meaning "to put away in, or as in, a hutch".

    Tabletop Games 
  • In pen-and-paper RPGs, doing this is called being a Rules Lawyer. It's generally frowned upon, as such players tend to be "Stop Having Fun" Guys, ignore the spirit of the rules (especially Rule Zero), and also have a suspicious tendency to only point out rules when it benefits them. YouTuber Puffin Forest broke them down into two categories in this video: Rules Traditionalists stick to the rules out of a belief that it will improve the game, while Rules Hagglers invoke this trope to mask their Loophole Abuse.
  • In GURPS, one disadvantage (that, incidentally, is part of the Artificial Intelligence meta-trait) is Reprogrammable. An entity with that disadvantage is forced to obey the orders of a specific character. It is explicitly mentioned that, unless the entity also has the disadvantage Slave Mentality, he/she/it must choose anytime upon being given an order whether to follow the letter or the intent of the order, thus allowing a sufficiently spiteful entity with that disadvantage to subvert the orders through Exact Words.
  • Magic: The Gathering has a very large number of stages and checks to be done in each turn. In a lot of games, nothing happens during many of them. As a fairly minor example of how this could be potentially frustrating:
    Player 1: I end my main phase.
    Player 2: Okay.
    Player 1: The combat phase begins. Beginning of combat step.
    Player 2: Oookay.
    Player 1: Declare attackers step. Do you have a response?
    Player 2: You don't have any creatures...
    Player 1: I declare no attackers. Declare blockers step.
    Player 2: There is nothing to block.
    Player 1: Are you declaring any blockers?
    Player 2: No.
    Player 1: Combat damage step. No combat damage is dealt. End of Combat Step. Combat Phase Ends. Second Main Phase begins.
    • Magic actually does have rules that allow you to shortcut this process if both players have nothing to do, so trying this sort of thing in a tournament will get you a penalty for stalling and/or unsportsmanlike conduct for fishing for penalties. It's one key thing judges are taught to spot. In casual play, of course, your opponent will probably just start throwing stuff at you.
      • And a further shortcut to the scenario presented above: If an attacker declares no attackers during the Declare Attackers step, the game skips straight to the end of combat step.
      • One famous incident at a French Nationals had a group of players try to use a typo in the most recent printing of the official card texts (Magic has a ton of errata on old cards) to use a devastatingly powerful combo. The head judge used his discretion to overrule the official wording ahead of the tournament and the players were disqualified when they still tried to do it. The DCI fully backed the judge's ruling.
    • There are many legitimate uses for such techniques. For example, if a source of mana is being destroyed, the opponent might tap it before it is gone, and then declaring a zero-creature attack can flush that mana pool. However, rather than be a jerk about it, it is much politer simply to explain where in the "glossed over" part of the turn you intend to intervene.
    • The AI in Magic: The Gathering Arena is smart enough to skip phases where no action is possible, but if you have any activated abilities available at the moment, it will give you an opportunity to activate them at every step, even if doing so would be deeply stupid. If, for example, you have an Adanto Vanguard in play, the game acts very much like Player 1 in the above example, constantly pausing to see if you'd like to pay 4 life to the Vanguard for no particular reason.
  • Of course, no loyal citizen would ever try this in a game of Paranoia. Friend Computer is perfectly sane, capable of nuance and understanding of the words "spirit of the law" and would never be susceptible to such a thing, anyhow!
  • That Guy Destroys Psionics: The narrator originally attempted to play a rogue with a focus on trap making and disabling, but was told by the GM to minmax or GTFO. The narrator was not very happy about this, and so he gave the GM exactly what he requested.

    Video Games 
  • In AI: The Somnium Files, two characters do this to Date on several occasions, much to his annoyance; Ota Matsushita and So Sejima. Matsushita just happens to have an uncanny knowledge of law and the police force, but with Sejima it makes more sense given he's a local politician.
  • In Edge of Eternity, Selene reveals to Daryon that she got herself released from her job with the Sanctorium due to a combination of this and Reverse Psychology. She did her job as an archivist so well that she became "a pain in the butt." Whenever they would try to establish new edicts, she would burst in with tablets of older laws and forgotten Epigrams, Sacred Texts that contradicted whatever edicts they were writing. She drove them so up the wall that they decided to "promote" her from archivist to midwife. She, however, had already become so popular with the midwives that they immediately elected her as their representative on the Council Ring, which meant that she was right back with the elders to drive the demands of the midwife corpus. They freaked out - they had thrown her out by the door only to see her climb back in through the window. They then decided that the only way that they could be sure to be rid of her was to task her with the honor of finding a cure for the Corrosion, there being rumors running around that it was the worst mission they could possibly give her and that she would be mortified to accept such a perilous mission, rumors which she had started.
  • Mass Effect: Andromeda: In the aftergame, Nakmor Drack tells Ryder that he's making his krogan scouts send all their reports along to the Initiative's Acting Director (who is a Control Freak, and really hates krogan), if he wants to double-check everyone's actions. He also says he told the scouts to make their reports "extra wordy", just for him.

    Visual Novels 
  • Tokimeki Memorial Girl's Side: Should the player get bothered by a salesman at the start of a date, Sakuya Morimura will make him go away by asking him a lot of questions about the product he was trying to sell. Is the product as eco-friendly as the bottle claims? How does the manufacturing waste get disposed of? And what packaging is it made out of? The salesman gets flustered and runs off, apologizing for having bothered them.

    Web Original 
  • In Season 1 of the Empires SMP, in response to Joey killing one of her villagers to get the Crown from her*, Lizzie follows Joey's rule to bring him horses as tribute to the letter by breeding about 200 horses in a pit at the edge of the Lost Empire (Joey's Empire), then unleashing them all upon it. The plan might have seemingly backfired initially, as Joey planned on using the horse-tributes to make a velociraptor army, but the real-life result of having 200 horses in a small space in a video game double-subverts it.
    Lizzie: Marvellous. There are so many horses here now; Joey might think he can build an army with all of these horses, but I don't know how he's gonna do anything with this amount of lag.
  • Not Always Right has this rather frequently, particularly its Not Always Working spinoff — half the time when a problem worker isn't being a problem out of incompetence, rudeness, or just plain laziness, they're being a problem because they're following protocol to the letter, even when it clearly doesn't apply or is an active detriment.
  • The Onion: Regulation Spitefully Obeyed To The Letter
  • SCP Foundation:
    • Articles written use metric units, in keeping with a scientific viewpoint. From time-to-time, American submitters intentionally write the exact metric equivalent of a measure, without rounding, to make a point. For example, if an object is supposed to be 600 feet, it's damn sure going to be written as 182.88 meters.
    • In universe: when something the Foundation thought was paranormal turns out to be ordinary, it's put in "the attic" to await processing. Personnel are assigned attic processing duty as a form of punishment. One person who's punished like that decides to follow the rules EXACTLY.
  • Tales From Dev Null's cookie notification for EU residents gives ALL the information necessary to make an informed decision.
  • This can be a problem on This Very Wiki from time to time with formatting enforcers, as they've been called:
    • Suffice to say they tend to make mistakes when enforcing formatting rules — most commonly completely ignoring the actual grammar of an existing example and making little to no effort to fix it so it still makes sense once it's formatted closer to the guidelines — often leading to skirmishes between us and hardcore Grammar Nazis. It's gotten so bad, there was a discussion at one point about the possibility of the creation of a task force dedicated to spelling, grammar, and formatting, part of the intended purpose being to curb the mistakes commonly made by formatting enforcers.
    • Similarly are users who take the site's rule to make entries as precise and to-the-point as possible, and so trim down longer examples to fit this mould. Suffice to say some examples just need to be long, and cutting out what may seem to be extraneous info to a fan of the work will leave it making little, if any, sense to someone who is not intimitely familiar with that specific element of that work. Worse still, is a third party can now come along, read the new example minus some crucial context, and decide it's not a relevent example and delete it, leading to valid examples of tropes being removed simply because two separate users followed the precise wording of the rule without considering the spirit of it.
  • This tumblr post deals with the author besting a scammer pretending to be the CEO by insisting upon the correct forms and procedures.
  • Reddit's r/MaliciousCompliance consists entirely of people dealing with Jerkasses by fulfilling their requests in ways that are within the rules but most likely to cause the Jerkass even more trouble.
  • This Tumblr user cites a story from their biology teacher as this trope. The teacher lived in Texas during a time period where the law was changed to define marriage as "between a man and a woman in a house of religious worship with the intention to have children"; in response to this, he filed his taxes as a single man (as he was married in a courthouse with no intention to have kids) and cited this to the government worker that called asking him about it.

  • Basic Instructions utilized this. As summed up in the third panel:
    Coworker: So, you're going to do exactly what he wants.
    Scott: Sometimes, that is the best form of sabotage.
  • Freefall:
    • This strip explains why Florence isn't necessarily bound to follow every single directive given to her:
      Florence: The surest way to cause your supervisor to fail is to follow his every order without question.
    • In another strip, Sam gives her a piece of advice regarding orders she can't get out of with the above philosophy, with the added bonus that it's invariably frustrating to authority figures (whom he makes a hobby of pissing off):
      Sam: Never ask for permission. Always arrange matters so that you automatically have permission unless someone actively takes steps to stop you.
    • Sam explains to two robots how they can, instead of being blocked by their programming, use it against the man they justly hate.
    • Later on, a proctor on an exam uses malicious compliance to explain to Florence that she needs to lie on the exam: she once ate a college friend's medicinal marijuana cookie, thinking it was an ordinary cookie, and so the literal answer (which Florence is forced by her safeguards to give) to the "have you ever used drugs" question is "yes", but the purpose of the question is to weed out addicts, so the proctor argues that the literal answer would violate this intent, making it malicious compliance. Florence agrees with the logic but she still can't make herself actually change her answer.
    • And still later, Sam realizes that a particular station is unprofitable because the workers don't like their boss (who would replace them with unpaid robots if not prevented by union rules) and therefore only do what they must.
  • This Full Frontal Nerdity strip. Here, the bureaucrat seems rather resigned to Nelson's use of the trope.
  • In Inkwell Penny Hell, Cuphead and Mugman attack Forkington when they see that he is abusing Little Dicenote . When Forkington tries to press charges against them for doing so, one of Rumor Honeybottom's officers hands him a giant stack of paperwork and tells him to put it all in writing, stalling for time until Elder Kettle can arrive to sort things out. While Forkington is yelling in frustration, the officer winks at Cuphead, who smiles.
  • The Order of the Stick:
    • Roy picks up Malack's staff, a powerful necromancy artifact that can raise dozens of vampires in moments rather than the three-day waiting period normally required. Hel's Frontarch immediately lodges a formal request for it to be returned to her as official regalia of the Church of Hel. Roy breaks it over his knee first before tossing it at her face.
    • The entire dwarven council plot revolves around this. Technically there's no rule that says the councilors aren't allowed to be mind-controlled (Gontor theorizes the ones who made the rules wanted to have the option to influence the vote themselves), and when a councilor brings this up a vampire just has one of the dominated thralls invite a full inquiry after the vote. Durkon saves the day by breaking the ceiling to drop a rock that smashes the table — turns out the meeting is only considered legal while they have an unbroken table made from a single tree. And then, with the meeting off, the heroes are free to just rush in and dogpile the vampires. Technically it's still illegal, but the point is that the magical protections that prevent interference with the council are going off.
      Priestess of Dvalin: Should we... do something about this?
      Councilor: Absolutely. I'll move to censure once we're back in session.
  • In Something*Positive, the dean asks his adjunct Vanessa to dress nicer to work, suggesting she should dress up like for a wedding. During her own wedding, she was dressed in her favourite Kaiju costume, so...
    Vanessa: So, ignore the syllabus. Today we're going over the philosophy of following instructions in the most petty way possible.
  • Tales of the Questor:
    • Unseleighe Princeling Dolan stated that Quentyn had until the rooster crowed at dawn to evade the Wild Hunt. Little did Quentyn know that Dolan had had all the local roosters killed ahead of time. Fortunately, Quentyn's allies went even further in Bothering By The Book: A character nicknamed "Rooster" crowed convincingly without Dolan looking.
    • Quentyn's entire quest is this: Racconnan law states that if a contract doesn't mention how many successors a contract applies to, then it only applies to one. He's that successor, and he's trying to fulfill a contract to save his town, so if he dies in the attempt, the contract dies with him.

    Western Animation 
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender: Aang employs this to his advantage in the Book 2 episode "Avatar Day." The residents of Chin Village intend to have him boiled in oil for a crime his past life committed. However, when the Rough Rhinos start attacking, the village leader begs him for help. Aang replies that he would, but he is supposed to be getting boiled in oil. The village leader then changes the punishment to mere community service so he'll help.
    • The Chin Village legal system in general seems to run on this trope. When Team Avatar questions the village's ludicrous legal system, the village leader states that they call it justice "because it's just us."
  • In one U.S. Acres episode of Garfield and Friends, the animals find a law book and decide to implement these laws on the farm. Orson names Roy Rooster as the Deputy Sheriff, and Roy quickly goes on a power trip arresting everyone for violating the extremely ridiculous laws in the book. They try to invoke this trope by telling Roy about the laws he's violating, and it backfires since Roy just locks himself in the jail cell with everyone else and throws away the key.
  • In one episode of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983), Beast-Man and Trap Jaw use a magic crystal palace to capture Orko, and force him to be their slave. However, Orko quickly realizes that he can creatively interpret how he obeys their commands and begins casting spells that obey the letter of their demands but cause them nothing but nonstop misery and pain. By the end of the episode they are begging Orko to leave.
  • King of the Hill:
    • In the episode "Square-Footed Monster", Ted Wassanasong begins building an eyesore house in the middle of the Hills' neighborhood despite the protests of the neighbors. Subverted when they try using a county clerk to help them but he can't find any regulations to halt construction. Later the house falls down in a storm and the neighbors have to tear the house down with tools to prevent it from damaging their houses. Ted tries to take the neighborhood to court but the judge rules against him, so out of spite Ted sells the land to the city, which erects a power substation. The trope is immediately played straight as the county clerk digs out a regulation that lets the neighborhood build a façade house around the substation so no one has to look at it.
    • Also used in the episode "Flush with Power" when Hank buys a lo-flow toilet in an effort to save water during a drought. However he discovers that the lo-flow toilets are faulty, requiring more than two flushes and thus more water than the old ones to do the same amount of work. He wants to switch back, but the Arlen zoning board has outlawed the old hi-flow toilets. He tries to bring the issue before the board, but they tell him only board members can introduce new legislation about the toilets; Hanks joins the zoning board and tries to introduce the new legislation, but none of the other board members are interested. He then discovers that the chairman of the board owns the company that makes the new toilets, hence his interest in keeping the law in place. Hank then tries again to introduce his legislation with this new information, but the other board members are friends of the chairman and none of them even own the new toilets so they still vote no. Hank is about to give up when Peggy literally reads him the rules of Parliamentary Procedure, and Hank proceeds to begin a filibuster until the other board members have to use the bathroom, and then realize that Hank was right about the new toilets being horrible, at which point they all change their votes to repeal the law and let hi-flow toilets be legal again (except for the chairman, who quits the meeting in anger).
    • Briefly mentioned in "I Remember Mono", where Peggy is checking over violations in several students' permanent records. She reads off a code 16, "not following directions", followed by a code 40, "following directions too closely", commenting that she doesn't see that one too often.
  • In the "Last Action Zero" episode of My Life as a Teenage Robot, Brad joins the Skyway Patrol, only to discover that they're a bunch of over-glorified legalese bureaucrats who expect him to fill out paperwork in duplicate and triplicate before taking any action whatsoever, and any heroic action done without proper paperwork is considered dangerous. Brad manages to outwit the Skyway Patrol by giving them overwhelming heaps of paperwork to be filled out in duplicate, triplicate, and other multiples beyond that, leaving them with a burden full of excessive paperwork to be authorized and notarized.
  • Invoked in one episode of Recess when the kids find a playground games rulebook written by a legendary playground king named King Morty. They are eager to implement these rules and since King Bob is busy trying to dictate his memoirs he orders his two lackeys to enforce them. At first, the kids are happy but things quickly turn sour because the rules are increasingly more like farm chores than games. The trope is then invoked by T.J. because the lackeys use literal "fun police" to force the children to adhere to the rules of King Morty so long as they are on the playground so T.J. simply has the kids leave the playground. The lackeys try to arrest the entire school anyway which causes a riot until King Bob shows up. The kids explain the ridiculous rules to King Bob who agrees that they are years and years out of date (King Morty lived during the Great Depression), and so declares the rules of King Morty void.
  • Rocket Power:
    • Invoked in an episode by Sam. After being caught covering for one of Otto and Twister's rule-breaking schemes, Sam is forced to join the Safety Patrol. At first, the other kids are happy, as they figure that having their friend on the Patrol will allow them to break all the rules they want and not get punished, but when they push Sam too far, he begins using the exact wording of the school's safety code to get them in all kinds of trouble. They try to reach a compromise, but Sam's already told the principal about an upcoming street hockey game in the teachers' parking lot. When the game begins, Sam seems stuck between ratting his friends out or violating his own Safety Patrol code...and he decides to Take a Third Option by turning this trope against the principal. It turns out that while various activities are forbidden in the rule book, street hockey isn't.
    • In another episode, the Rockets' obnoxious neighbor Merv Stimpleton ends up slightly injured (though he hugely exaggerates the extent of the damage) because of the kids' skating on the local boardwalk, and whips up other senior citizens into a frenzy to ban all forms of extreme sports from that area. The main four, along with all the other local skaters and rollerbladers, are at a loss... until Merv's wife Violet, who's firmly aware of what a Jerkass her husband is being, points out that all the kids need to do is find a place to skate that's "safe and friendly." This inspires Reggie, Otto, Twister, and Sam to create a miniature skate park in the Rockets' driveway, forcing Merv to deal with the noise and commotion every waking minute. A chastised Merv then moves toward a peaceful solution: working with the city to build an actual skate park for the local children.
  • Kaeloo: In Episode 216, the main four want to play a game of blind man's buff. However, a passing remark makes Rules (who is an anthropomorphic personification of the concept of rules that has a somewhat robotic form) think that the game is "unequal" since one of the players can't see everyone else, so she refuses to allow them to play until she determines a way to make it "equal". Kaeloo then insists that if Rules wants to accommodate everyone, she really has to accommodate everyone, and she assembles a diverse group of players with different needs and abilities that are impossible to adapt to at the same time and forces Rules to come up with a set of rules that this particular group can use that can truly make them all be on equal footing. Rules is overwhelmed by the increasing demands, shuts down, and restarts with no memory of what happened earlier.

    Real Life 
  • Work to Rule is a labor action taken when workers follow rules and regulations to the letter, doing no more (and no less) work than is required. This means both doing the barest minimum of actual work, as well as strictly following time-consuming and unnecessary procedures which are normally not obeyed. The trouble, of course, is that there are usually also ways within the rules for the bosses to make your life hard... and if you live in a place with weak labor protection, you might get fired anyway. For added irony, this tactic is often used in response to a perceived excessive emphasis on following insignificant rules and regulations that aren't really necessary for safe and quality work, i.e. "You want us to really follow the rules? Okay!"
  • The term for this in the military is "white mutiny," usually done if a soldier has an order and/or a commanding officer he doesn't particularly care for. In a white mutiny, the soldier will follow every order exactly as stated, nothing more and nothing less, without using his judgment or applying adjustments to the specific situation. If enough soldiers do this or one soldier does it long enough, it's usually going to bring the entire operation to a grinding halt.
  • French railway employees were forbidden to strike after the railways were nationalized. They scanned the rule book and found that regulations stated the engineer had to check at every overpass for obstructions on the tracks, and if he wasn't sure, to consult with the rest of the train crew. It wasn't usually done, of course, for the simple reason that doing so put the trains ridiculously behind schedule... which is exactly what happened when they started doing it. They couldn't be penalized for enforcing the rules, but it got results.
    • Also in France (do enough digging and you'll find the French love this trope), taxi drivers started obeying the law in order to bring the government to the bargaining table. They obeyed every law. They obeyed the speed limit, signalled appropriately, came to a complete stop... they drove like anxious grandmas with macular degeneration and brought every city to a nightmare of gridlock.
  • Postal workers in Austria did much the same thing, strictly enforcing a rule that all packages and letters must be weighed to ensure there was enough postage for them, leaving the post offices filled up with unweighed mail by the second day. Seen here.
  • A World War II field manual encouraged spies infiltrating the Nazi bureaucracy to do this. The Nazis were frequently in competition with each other anyway due to Hitler's belief in making the strongest rise to the top. It was usually thought that someone who was following the rules too closely either didn't want to piss off one of their superiors or was trying to stoke an inter-office rivalry, both of which were far more likely than a spy attempting a sabotage.
  • "Malicious compliance" is the common management phrase for this, particularly if it isn't just taking advantage or a protest, but an attempt to actually subvert or destroy a project or organization. The term sometimes crosses into Exact Words territory as well— the other wiki gives the example of some firefighters who were dissastified with a new requirement to wear SCBA equipment; they wore the equipment but didn't turn it on.
  • There weren't exactly any explicit rules, but since slaves in antebellum America couldn't easily rise up and overthrow their masters (though it was attempted in some notable rebellions), and running away was rather risky, many would instead resist passive-aggressively by working as slowly as they could get away with, and intentionally screwing up so that their masters would think they were stupid and not trust them with difficult tasks.
  • During the same time period, the Union would often protect escaped slaves who fled north by always listing them as "contraband". Prior to the 13th amendment, slavery was still legal and thus owners could reclaim the slaves as their property. By that same token, however, slaves could be "confiscated" as contraband if the slave owner was breaking the law and resisting Federal authority. Seceding from the Union and raising an army against it would certainly qualify as such by most standards. As they marched south, the Union Army liberated occupied areas by continuing the charade. They'd confiscate all "contraband" they came across and then disposed of the "property" they had no use for by freeing them.
    • This was the underlying legal basis of the Emancipation Proclamation: President Lincoln, using his authority as Commander in Chief, made this doctrine standard procedure for all rebel-held territories which came under Union control.
  • This is also the origin behind Capoeira. The slaves couldn't spar to train for an eventual overthrow but could play and dance, which they used to disguise the training. To this day, sparring and practicing in capoeira is called playing.
  • A heroic example is the story of the "Belgian Ghost Train", in which during the final days of the German occupation of Belgium in World War II, members of the Belgian National Railways managed to prevent a trainload of political prisoners being taken to Germany for extermination by finely judged bureaucratic time-wasting, as well as sabotage and, in some cases, running away and hiding. Read the full story.
  • The Ku Klux Klan petitioned the state of Missouri to be allowed to "adopt" a stretch of road; getting their name on a sign by that road and doing charity by picking up trash and debris on their stretch. The KKK being obnoxious racists, no-one wanted to formally acknowledge them as a civic organization. Yet, the law in the United States says they were free to associate, speak, and work in the community no matter how noisome they are. The solution? Assigning the Klansmen to clean up Rosa Parks Highway.
  • Taken to ridiculous extents with this video of Israeli MK Ahmad Tibi. In short (and for non-Hebrew speakers), Tibi is serving as substitute chairman for the meeting, and as one of the MKs. He (as MK) wishes to take the podium in order to present a bill to the Knesset — but then there will be no chairman to substitute him. Therefore, he (as an MK) must request from himself (as chairman) to allow himself to present the bill from his current seat. An idiomatically translated transcript of the best bit:
    MK Ne'eman: Does your honor have a conflict of interest?
    MK Tibi: There is a conflict — the possibility of recessing came up, but I said that today was a special day, there's a semifinal, so in spite of it, there's no reason to hurt people's chances of getting home on time. [Looks down at his text] Your honor the chairman, which is me, your honor the Minister, Ladies and Gentlemen the Members of the Knesset, there is no doubt that—
    MK Shai: You need to set a limit for your time!
    MK Tibi: I'll call myself to order if I carry on.
It should be noted that Tibi is an Arab Israeli and the leader of the Arab Ta'al party; Arab parties are (though it is officially frowned upon) made to feel unwelcome among many legislators. He found himself at the head of the meeting somewhat unexpectedly, so one can't really fault him for enjoying doing this kind of thing to thumb his nose at the rest of the Knesset. In addition to his special situation as an Arab MK, his YouTube record would indicate that he makes a habit of this kind of improv comedy on slow days in the Knesset.
  • Similarly to Ahmad Tibi, but probably apocryphally, future Confederate General Braxton Bragg once was serving as both quartermaster of a small frontier base and commander of one of the companies stationed there. As company commander, he filed a supply requisition that, as quartermaster, he felt duty-bound to reject. With neither half of him willing to yield, the issue had to be referred to the incredulous post commandant. According to Ulysses S. Grant's memoirs, that worthy exclaimed:
    "My God, Mr. Bragg, you have quarreled with every officer in the army, and now you are quarreling with yourself!"
  • Done by the Israelis to the Roman Empire when lost. Just as one example the treaty the Romans signed with the Israelis stated they’d fix the roads if they were ever damaged - so the Israelis started intentionally loading up heavy carts and place chains and spiked wheels on said carts and riding back and forth across the Roman Capital Building even if they had nowhere to go, just to cost the Romans money; The Jewish people were also quite infamously a rowdy and belligerent group to rule who never technically violated any Roman laws and drove most of their Roman governors mad or to early retirement. By the era of Emperor Tiberius, they decided to just start appointing Jewish Kings instead because otherwise the Israelis would beat them over the head with their own political obligations to them, that the Empire dare not break lest of provinces hear about it and resort to open rebellion.
  • Acting out this trope is a somewhat popular way to introduce algorithms to new computer science students, to drive home the points that computers are perfectly logical and have absolutely no common sense. Ask the classroom for directions on something simple (making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, for example), and then follow the directions. For example, if the class comes up with "take out two slices of bread, put peanut butter on one slice and jelly on the other, then put the slices of bread together", look at the bread and complain that you can't take any slices out because it's in a sealed bag. When they amend the earlier instructions to include "open the bag", rip the bag open as violently as possible, take out two slices, put the peanut butter (still in its jar) on top of one slice, the jelly (ditto) on another, put the slices side by side, and declare it a sandwich. And so on, until the class writes you some properly detailed instructions. As the saying goes:
    The good thing about computers is that they do exactly what you tell them to.
    The bad thing about computers is that they do exactly what you tell them to.
  • Supposedly, this provides the best chance of beating a speeding ticket. If the case is just your word against the cop's, you always lose. Very few cops, however, come to the hearing with all the maintenance records of their equipment (and police radar guns are rarely maintained as precisely as required by regulation). Whether you were actually speeding or not, they can't cite you based on "faulty" equipment. Note that this only works if you really know what you're doing, as if you said or did anything the cop can use as evidence to cite you or if that cop actually does show up with those maintenance records, suddenly you're out a lot more money and time than if you'd just paid the speeding ticket. Or just don't speed in the first place; that works surprisingly well.
  • This is also how lawyers help clients beat drunk driving charges, at least in the U.S. In most jurisdictions, the prosecution must prove that you were intoxicated to support a DUI conviction. Intoxication is considered proven if your blood alcohol content (BAC) exceeds 0.08%, with increased penalties if the BAC exceeds some higher figure. However, measuring blood alcohol content directly by taking a blood sample is a pain, because drawing blood is a technical hassle for the police both medically and legally (you need a warrant). So they rely on specialized breath-testing equipment to prove it indirectly based on breath alcohol content (BrAC). Measured accurately, BrAC correlates well enough with BAC. However, the equipment needs to be correctly calibrated, and certain procedures need to be followed. If they're not, the court must rely on the police observation to support a finding of intoxication—which is often seen as a waste of police resources—and cannot make a finding at all regarding the increased penalties for excessive BAC. This is why New Jersey's Supreme Court devoted no fewer than 102 pages of the New Jersey Reports to the circumstances under which a newly-developed piece of breath-testing equipment was accurate enough to serve as evidence of intoxication (State v. Chun, 194 N.J. 54 (2008)), and why (in the same state) up to twenty thousand DWI convictions almost got thrown out because one State Trooper didn't use the right kind of thermometer when doing his calibrations.
  • This crops up occasionally in cases when the public feels that a highway could safely handle a speed limit increase (for instance, 100 km/h to 120 km/h.) Because police can give you a speeding ticket for driving over the limit, some people purposely block all lanes of the highway and drive at exactly the posted speed limit.
  • During the "Separate but Equal" era of American Segregation, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund realized that it did not have the support required to strike down segregation as defined by Plessy v. Ferguson. So instead, the lawyers would sue institutions for failing to follow the "equal" part of Plessy v. Ferguson, i.e. failing to make black facilities just as good as the ones for whites (which was extremely common, because racism). The NAACP's most famous case was Sweatt v. Painter, which ruled that the University of Texas had broken the law by making its law school for black students grossly inferior compared to its law school for white students. This court case had the effect of desegregating higher education almost overnight, as universities realized that they couldn't afford to run two separate schools of equally high quality. Which is exactly what the NAACP had hoped for.
  • Urban legend says this trope led to the invention of the potato chip. The story goes that 19th-century chef George Crum (who was real, but never told the story himself) was being bothered by an extremely fussy customer (in some tellings, Cornelius Vanderbilt). The customer had ordered french fries, but kept sending them back, complaining each time that they were too thick, too soggy or not salted enough. Crum became angry and decided to teach the customer a lesson about impractical standards. He sliced some potatoes ridiculously thin, fried them to a crisp and absolutely drowned them in salt... only for the customer to absolutely love it, and so a new dish was born.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): Work To Rule, Rulebook Slowdown, Malicious Compliance, Malicious Obedience


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