Before signing or agreeing to something, you really should read through the contract. However, being a doorstopping Wall 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,* mistake,* frustration of purpose,* impossibility,* and impracticability* 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 and life. 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 and Rattling Off Legal. Favored by the Morally Bankrupt Banker.
- 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 Instant Runes around the edge of the portal explaining this before jumping through it. Cinque angrily protests that not only are the runes are in dog language, but the portal was opened underneath him while he was in the middle of a jump, so he had neither the ability nor the time to read it.
- In Yu-Gi-Oh! ARC-V, Yuzu asks Yuya for his "autograph" and he signs the paper she gives him without looking at it. He finds out too late that it was a contract forcing him to work at her school.
- 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.
6/22/2015: Yes, if the fourth mode is the only one remaining, you must choose it. You read the whole contract, right?
- Orzhov Syndicate from Ravnica specializes in roping in people into contracts with really detrimental fine print. Example: Losing an appendage for late payment? Ouch. The head being counted as an appendage? Its in the fine print.
- The card Demonic Pact forces you to choose one option of four each turn, with the caveat that you can't choose an option you've already chosen. Three of the options are highly beneficial, while the fourth is "You lose the game." The list of official rulings for the card includes a snarky reference to this trope:
- 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 to fulfill or risk dire consequences.
- Scrooge has found himself on the wrong end of these, as well. In "The Horseradish Story", an ancestor of his signed a contract 200 years ago 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 him a set of golden teeth, a Chisel McSue, last heir of the McSue Clan, got a court order allowing him 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 the contract by any means other than recovering the case of horseradish and delivering it to Jamaica. His nephews use this trope against him in the same story, making 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 the crateful of horseradish.
- 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 general the comics employed extreme amounts of Artistic License Law when dealing with contracts and most of the problems this trope created in-universe would not exist in Real Life because that is just not how contracts work.
- In one Casper the Friendly Ghost story, "Powfinger", the small print in a contract magically shrinks to prevent anyone reading it.
- Dogbert isn't actually reading the contract, he just likes to look at documents and say "yadda yadda yadda..." However he does recommend retyping the contract to benefit Dilbert and then sending it in. They can't proofread all of them can they? (Someone later did this in real life)
- Bloom County had a strip where Steve Dallas was having Bill the Cat sign a contract off panel, Steve was saying "Sign here.... sign here - DON'T READ THAT! Sign here..."
- The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy: "Scout's Dishonor" (Cartoon Network Block Party #35) had a mousy scoutmaster getting Billy to sign up for the Extreme Scouts. It's after he signs that the scoutmaster becomes a General Ripper. Mandy claims bossing Billy around is her privilege but the scoutmaster shows her the fine print: all rights revert to him. So Mandy adds Grim's name to the contract.
- Spider-Man: In The Amazing Spider-Man #14, Spidey signs a contract to appear in a movie. When the producer gives up on the idea to start another movie, he reveals that, according to the fine print, Spidey doesn't "get any money until the picture is completed". Spidey will never be paid for his work in the film because it'll never be completed.
Spider-Man: You're not related to J. Jonah Jameson by some chance, are you?
- In YAIHF, Dobby is recruited by Harry to help him become more independent. One of the tasks Dobby decides to do is magically contract several of Harry Potter's female friends for various jobs. Unfortunately, Dobby added a clause to each contract that basically makes them "Harry's Plaything". Hermione and Tonks just signed it, Fleur didn't read the whole contract until after she signed it, and Luna read the whole thing and still signed it. (For added bonus, Dobby managed to recruit Gabrielle, One of Gabrielle's Maids, and Narcissa Malfoy, all of who don't mind becoming "Harry's Plaything")
- The Fan Fic Total Drama Chris expands the canon into a recurring plot point, and eventually reveals that their Jerkass Level Grinding Chris has been continuously adding new things to the already-signed contracts, assuming this is just as binding. Chef calls him out on it.
- Mr and Mrs Gold: Belle points out to Ella that it was an incredibly stupid and short-sighted thing to do signing a Magically Binding Contract from somebody like Rumpelstiltskin without reading any of it and not expecting some horrifying repercussion.
- The "Have Faith" tetralogy's second story, The Sum of Their Parts, discusses this - Cameron Kim is bound to Wolfram & Hart by contract, and recounts how her parents had signed one that, thanks to one of its clauses (stating that they'd work for W&H for fifteen years, and dying before that time was up construed a violation of contract), allowed the firm to effectively bully her into also contracting with them after her parents died. She, however, was more careful about reading the extremely tiny fine print and crossed out two clauses (including the same "after-death" clause that had been in her parents' contract), telling the lawyer to bring back a copy with those two removed. And she'd be re-reading the whole thing to make sure they didn't try to pull any fast ones. She got what she wanted.
- 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.
- In Hey Arnold! The Movie, Big Bob Pataki signs a contract with Scheck to get a beeper store in the new mall Scheck plans to build over Arnold's neighborhood. It's only afterwards that he reads the fine print and finds out that in exchange, Scheck gets 51%note of Big Bob's company.
- Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory: Before being admitted to the tour of Wonka's chocolate factory, the kids must sign an extremely lengthy contract with text that gets progressively smaller until it's virtually microscopic. The contract alarms most of the parents, but they sign anyway, given that they have no real choice. Wonka cites this contract in the end.
- However, the contracts they signed carry absolutely no legal weight. Note that the kids sign, not their parents. The kids are all minors and therefore can't enter into any kind of a legal contract. The parents can do so on behalf of the children (although there are hundreds of laws covering that and Wonka would have needed an army of lawyers standing behind him), but the parents don't sign. Hey, Wonka? Good luck in front of an English Barrister with a contract containing microscopic fine print that is also signed by people who aren't allowed to sign a contract...
- 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 fact, the film's villain got Fred to sign his name to everything he did in the movie this way.
- The hero of The Spanish Prisoner is tricked into signing a club membership form which turns out to be a request for political asylum from the Republic of Venezuela. Later it's used against him.
- An example shows up in Wayne's World, but it pans out quite differently from most examples. The other party is a sleazeball but never attempts to move the goalposts and most of the terms he gets Wayne in trouble over are relatively reasonable by entertainment industry standards. In fact, if Wayne had bothered to get a lawyer and read and negotiate a bit, most of the plot could have been avoided.
- In the 1957 musical of The Pied Piper of Hamelin, the Mayor produces the 'receipt' for the piper's services, carefully unrolling only the bit where his signature goes. Suspicious, the piper insists on reading it...and the unrolled scroll stretches halfway across the room. "I see as we go up the line the print gets rather fine." After various deductions for unrelated expenses, and a clause that his fee can be held in escrow for a hundred years, the contract ends by stating that the Piper must pay 50,000 guilders (the entire sum he's owed) should the rats come back. We all know what happens next.
- Inverted for the same effect in Stroker Ace. Clyde Torkle's contract is so long that its bound form is larger than most phone books. That and some quick smooth talk ensures that Stroker signs it anyway, even after insisting that he read the whole thing. Torkle then spends the movie forcing Stroker through some truly embarrassing advertising gags. In addition, Torkle worded his contract so that Stroker can't race for three years if he quits. Stroker spends the rest of the movie trying to get Torkle to fire him so the clause doesn't come into effect.
- 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."
- The first Red Dwarf novel expanded on the character who was the ship's hologram before Rimmer. At one point, he took out a loan from a mob run building society with a ridiculously high interest rate clause. The clause in question was hidden in a microdot in the letter i in one sentence, thereby taking the concept of fine print to ridiculous new levels.
- 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, Jim diGriz 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.
- In another novel, Jim seeks to overthrow a dictator who introduced democracy on his planet, only to become President for Life thanks to his Secret Police and rigged elections. At one point the dictator calls an early election before Jim has his own campaign ready. Everyone thinks they're screwed until Jim asks to look at the Constitution (regarded as a useless paper document) and finds a clause saying that if a candidate can prove electoral fraud, there has to be another election at a later date. Fortunately the dictator has overplayed his hand by claiming the only people who voted for the opposition were the two candidates; thanks to the dictator's 0% Approval Rating it's easy to find people willing to state otherwise.
- 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.
- In The Dresden Files Harry and other wizards always read the fine print, even if it is on a contract they sent to the person and now are signing themselves. This is because if something new is added, they could end up signing away their soul, service, first born child, or a whole load of other things. And when the other parties can include the Fae, gods, demons, and the Almighty and His group, best to read what one is signing. 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. This backfires on Cersei when a paper dissolving her administration is put in front of King Tommen by those seeking to remove her from power.
- In The Definitive Biography of P.D.Q. Bach, P.D.Q. is said to have signed a contract promising him a stipend of five shillings, in exchange for which he agrees to "perform the duties incumbent upon the Organist of the Chapel if I feel like it." According to Schickele (his alleged biographer), this shows that P.D.Q. was not only a musical innovator, but also the first person to use fine print in a contract.
- In the short story anthology All Hell Breaking Loose, one story is about the Devil visiting a Corrupt Corporate Executive from a record company so that he can add a new clause to the company's Terms of Service agreement that would enable him to steal the soul of anyone who illegally downloaded one of their songs. The executive agreed, since he was getting a dramatic drop in music theft and a Get Out Of Hell Free card out of the deal.
- In the second book of the Alcatraz Series, the keepers of the Library of Alexandria have a rather draconian lending policy - in order to get the right to check out a book, you must forfeit your soul to the library. Checking out a book (an action which they define as moving any object with text on it from its original location) is considered acceptance of their terms. It is possible to get them to explain this beforehand, but the librarians will only explain the rules of the library in their common tongue, which has been a dead language outside of the library for millennia. There are books on how to translate that language in the library, but attempting to read one of them would constitute checking out a book. Fortunately, Alcatraz owns a set of magical spectacles that allow the wearer to understand all languages.
- An example in the Doctor Who New Adventures Eleventh Doctor novel Borrowed Time is that two alien "businessmen" are selling time-travel devices that allow you to go back along your own personal timeline and spend more time with your family, get more work done, etc, and you just have to pay back an hour of your life for every hour you took. Good deal, right? Not really-the small print says that it's not one hour per hour, it's one hour per hour, per hour. Essentially, the longer you take to pay it back, the more the compound interest racks up, so that you end up paying back hundreds of hours from your lifespan even if you only used five or so. This leads to people aging swiftly or even dying. And if you try to mess with the device, you invalidate the warranty and pay back all of the time right there and then. Eventually, the Doctor crashes the value of every single debt, buys them out from the Time Market, then cancels them.
- The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn: Positive example in the sequel The Dark Secret of Weatherend. It's been years since Myra Eels bothered to carefully read the contract she signed when she was made Head Librarian of the Hoosac Public Library, and as a result, she'd forgotten about one clause that was in there, stating that she could not be fired from her job for any reason.
- In the picture book Dragons Love Tacos, the boy who hosts a taco party for the dragons neglected to read the fine print on the "totally mild salsa" he bought for the tacos that it contains spicy jalapeño peppers. Result? Dragons breathing fire everywhere and burning his house. Fortunately, the dragons are so thankful for the taco party that they help him rebuild.
- Our Miss Brooks: In the episode "Hospital Capers", a lawyer (a literal ambulance chaser) gets Mr. Boynton to sign a contract hiring him as counsel; the contract features a hefty penalty if Mr. Boynton chooses to terminate his representation. When Miss Brooks visits the lawyer, he hands her ever larger magnifying glasses to read the contract's fine print.
- An episode of Austin and Ally has Ally join what she thinks is a record deal, but it's actually punk-like band. She tries to quit but finds out she accidentally agreed to a 5 year contract. Trish (the one who signed the contract in the first place) was too lazy to read the fine print beleiving it to be unnecessary. In the end, the gang uses this trope to trick the band's manager into releasing Ally.
- 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.
- Jessie: This is how Bertram became the Rosses' butler.
- Bertram: Make sure you read the fine print. This butler thing was supposed to be a summer job.
- 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 magnifying glass and 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.
- Monty Python's Flying Circus: A man hosting a dinner finds out that when you sign up for the Book of the Month club, you get a free hundredweight of animal dung delivered to your house. Of course, it's not on the forms because that would be bad for business. Seconds later, he learns that when you order a new cooker, you also get a free dead Indian. Of course, in that case, the free dead Indian is mentioned in the adverts. It's just that it's in the very small print so as not to affect the sales. And then they find out for every two cartons of single cream you buy, the Milk Marketing Board gives you an M4 motorway. This leads to a scene of the couple standing in a highway with a dead Indian and lots of dung. A police car then drives up:
Inspector: Yes! This couple is just one of the prizes in this year's Police Raffle. Other prizes include two years for breaking and entering, a crate of search warrants, a 'What's all this then?' T-shirt and a weekend for two with a skinhead of your own choice.Announcer: And that's not all. Three fabulous new prizes have just been added: a four-month supply of interesting undergarments, a fully motorized pig, and a hand-painted scene of Arabian splendour, complete with silly walk!
- A segment of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver covering net neutrality by showing clips of C-SPAN and pointing out one of the great truths of modern-day society.
- This Trope is Inverted in an episode of Murder, She Wrote, when a Jessica tells a victim of such a contract - promising someone the lions' share of her earnings - is actually very easy to nullify. (Unfortunately, the contract holder then becomes the murder victim, resulting in the contract signer becoming the suspect; didn't see that coming...)
- Full Frontal. In a spoof of pre-nuptual agreements, a young couple at a singles bar agree to go to a hotel room for sex, whereupon the woman introduces her lawyer who insists on a "pre-sexual agreement". The man gets more and more flustered as the lawyer explains the contract, until he finally objects that he's not going through with this...until his own lawyer checks it (said lawyer is also waiting nearby). Later we return to the skit with both lovers and both lawyers in the same bed, negotiating the move from foreplay to sexual intimacy.
- On Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the "Ferengi print" in Quark's contracts actually required that his dabo girls put up with his sexual advances. Of course, once Commander Sisko hears of this...
Sisko: I'm not a legal expert either, but I can assure you, after I talk to Quark, he won't hold you or anyone else to this provision concerning the exchange...
- 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.
- Fine print is often a topic of discussion on the radio show and associated website of Clark Howard, a consumer advocate, who humorously refers to it as "mice type."
- In some versions of the RPG Paranoia, even the money comes with fine print attached.
- As recounted in the Dungeons & Dragons sourcebook Fiendish Codex II: Tyrants of the Nine Hells, this is one of the Baatezu's favorite tales. Back at the dawn of creation, Asmodeus and his fellow angels battled the demons until they become nearly as corrupted and grotesque. When mortals began breaking the deities' laws and summoning demons into their worlds, Asmodeus volunteered his Fallen Angels' services to punish sinners. This quite ruined the atmosphere of the various heavens, so Asmodeus brokered the Pact Primeval with the gods, which set up a separate Hell for the torture of evil souls and gave the devils the right to harvest magical energy from the process to sustain themselves. All was well until the good deities realized that they were receiving fewer virtuous souls in their afterlives because the devils were tempting mortals into evil to increase their yield. When the furious gods confronted Asmodeus, he simply smiled and said this trope verbatim.
- In Changeling: The Lost the Hag of Henslowe Park infamously offers a Magically Binding Contract for a year of good fortune in exchange for a year of enslavement. A skilled Pledgecrafter might notice that the enslavement is actually a penalty for breach of contract and that the Pledge requires the second party to thank the Hag for her assistance. Most people don't notice.
- Liliana of Magic: The Gathering learned the hard way that if all the Demons that she had formed a contract with were all to die, her contract would be given to Nichol Bolas. Oh well.
- Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: The parents/guardians of the five kids need to sign the thick, bound contracts, which Mr. Wonka hastily summarizes with copious amounts of nonsensical legalese and Altum Videtur — as well as the line "No property be touched or chewed or peddled" — when they ask him what it says. They still don't understand it, but the impatient kids cry "Just sign!" Given later events, this contract apparently boils down to "I am not responsible for the consequences (transformation, dismemberment, possibly death, etc.) if you the undersigned fiddle around with what you're not supposed to."
- Guitar Hero 3 has the band firing Lou as their manager, only to find the very small print at the bottom of their contract says "Your soul is mine". Next stop: Lou's Inferno.
- In Neverwinter Nights 2 Mask of the Betrayer, the player, by finding a loophole, can help a wizard who made a contract with a devil without reading it. One possible response to learning that:
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 aDravis: 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.
- What makes this one especially interesting is that the property in question had previously been destroyed and regarded as refuse. Never mind the fact that taking this stand meant not only depriving the employee of her own possessions (that is to say, her own life), but would also threaten the lives of everyone else in Rapture - all in order to protect what amounts to his garbage, his broken toys that he threw away but doesn't want anyone else to recycle. This scene actually serves as Ryan's Moral Event Horizon from the point of view of the player; at this point Ryan's actions should have made him sufficiently detestable that his status as the Big Bad in need of a violent ending is beyond argument. Too bad that Ryan takes that satisfaction away...
- If you spend 30,000 gold or more buying goods from the demon salesman Renon in Castlevania 64 he appears before the final boss and asks if you actually read the contract you entered into to do so. When your character claims they couldn't read the demonic language it's written in, he points out that by spending that much he now owns your soul and goes all One Winged Angel on your ass to collect it.
- In My Magical Divorce Bureau, the marriage of Lexis and Lillum arose from a bad (and unnecessary) agreement. Lexis, being not very good at interacting with people, tried to arrange a date with Lillum by means of a formal written contract, and when Lillum's people drew up said contract, an administrative error made it into a full marriage agreement. Their marriage gets dissolved despite the contract, but selecting the right options can result in the two agreeing to try things again properly.
- Marca Toons: José Mourinho offers Pedro León a contract to officially change his nickname... but after signing it, he learns it actually was a contract to send him on loan to another club. At least his nickname does change: he is no longer "The Substitute", now he is "The Loaned".
Mourinho: Good luck at Hércules!
- This Penny Arcade strip.
- Exploiting others through sneakily-worded contracts is a favorite tactic of Thief from 8-Bit Theater.
- Marth in one Awkward Zombie strip actually attempts to subvert this, though Master Hand had other ideas.
- This Luke Surl strip: "Functionally it's pretty much identical to any Microsoft EULA", only they evidently entangled it too much.
- In Sinfest, according to section VI article 12 of the agreement, the Devil reserves the right to do whatever he damn well pleases.
Devil: I'm in the details, baby!
Disclaimer: The Devil, being the Prince of Lies, is known to trick people from time to time.
- Also this earlier strip: Satisfied Customers
- 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.
- Rainbow Dash fell victim to this in Friendship is Dragons. Two other players in her D&D group who happened to be artificers drew up a contract for her character to sign, deliberately taking so long that her player fell asleep out of boredom. When it was finally ready, she signed without looking at it, only to find out at the end that it gave her share to the artificers. The DM allowed it because it was in-character and hilarious, ignoring how upset and embarrassed she was.
- In Nerf NOW!!, Morgan balks at a scene she describes as "fanservice and pandering", until she's shown the ridiculously tiny print in her contract where she agreed to do just that. She does refuse to smile, however, since the contract neglected to cover that point.
- Discussed and defied in The Order of the Stick, where the archfiends lay out a simple verbal agreement, which is sealed by touching a ball of light. As they say, they don't need to hide details in a contract when they can achieve their goals by being open, or rather, by implying that the specifics of the deal are different than they are.
- Before signing the contract with Kyubey be sure to read the fine print.
- Used at the start of this Meme.
- 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 Episode 27 challenge in the Internet Reality Talent Show Strip Search involves identifying malicious clauses in a contract.
- In the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic episode "Once Upon a Zeppelin," Twilight Sparkle's parents sign a contract telling them that they won a free airship cruise without reading it. Unbeknownst to them, it's a "Princess Cruise," and they just signed away their daughter's entire day in order to make the other guests happy.
- DuckTales (1987): In "Dime Enough For Luck", Gladstone Gander unknowingly signs a contract agreeing to help rob Scrooge's money bin in front of a disguised Magica.
- 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..
- 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.'
- This was essential to the climax of the Futurama episode "The Devil's Hands Are Idle Playthings".
- 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.
- Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends: In the episode "The Sweet Stench of Success", the antagonist of the episode tries to invoke this by saying that it was adoption papers that Bloo signed, not an acting contract. What makes this a subversion is that said adoption papers were never run by Foster's first and thus technically null and void.
- In The Transformers 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 planet Mind 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
- In Rocky and Bullwinkle, whenever Boris, in one of his many guises, tricks Rocky and Bullwinkle into signing a contract, he tells them not to read the contract so they won't hurt their eyes.
Snidely: You people are gonna have to learn to read the small print.
- 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.
Woman: I can't even read the large print.
Snidely: Can I help it if there was a paper shortage?
- In the Family Guy episode "A Fish Out of Water" Peter gets a loan from a bank to pay for a boat. Brian tells him the bank is now seizing all his assets and he needs $50,000 or they get the house as well. He asks Peter if he read the fine print on the loan contract.
Peter: If by "read" you mean "imagined a naked lady," then yes.
- Looney Tunes:
- In the short "Fool Coverage", insurance salesman Daffy Duck spends the whole cartoon trying to convince Porky Pig to purchase an accident policy offering $1 million for a black eye. After Porky agrees to sign it at the end, Daffy smugly informs him that the policy is only effective if the accident results from a stampede of elephants inside his own home between 3:55 and 4:00 pm on the Fourth of July during a hailstorm. Naturally, every one of those conditions are immediately met. Daffy then tries to slip in an extra provision that "one baby zebra" has to follow the elephants. Cue one baby zebra.
- In the Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner short Wile E. attempts to trap the Road Runner by getting him to eat some Acme Earthquake Pills disguised as birdseed. They don't work, and it isn't until Wile E. contemptuously swallows the entire bottle of pills that he reads the fine print on the pill bottle and discovers that they're "not effective on Road Runners." Cue Oh, Crap!.
- In the Star vs. the Forces of Evil episode "The Gift of the Card", Star buys Marco a gift card for the multi-dimensional mall Quest Buy, and signs the contract without reading it. The fine print says if the card expires without being used, both Star and Marco will die (the card transforms into a seemingly invincible monster when time is almost up). Marco berates her for it, but manages to buy something with seconds to spare.
- Subverted in an episode of Gravity Falls. Stan answers the door to discover he has won $10 million, and just had to sign a claim form; he does so immediately and enthusiastically. Then Gideon strides in and gloats that Stan has just signed over the Mystery Shack... only for Stan to point out that he didn't actually sign, he just wrote an insulting message. Don't try to con a Con Man.
- In the SpongeBob SquarePants episode "Pickles", Bubble Bass invokes this on Mr. Krabs after claiming that his Krabby Patty was missing its pickles, and demands his $2 back. Mr. Krabs doesn't know what he's talking about, until Bass points to the positively microscopic text on the bottom of the menu reading "-money back guarantee-"note .
- Batman: The Animated Series: In "If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Rich?", Daniel Mockridge tricked Edward Nygma into signing a "Work For Hire" contract that gave Mockridge the royalties to all of Nygma's inventions. Thus, Mockridge was making millions and he didn't have to pay Nygma any of the profits. When Nygma complained, he was fired. Nygma then becomes the Riddler and seeks revenge.
- If you live in a Commonwealth country, thank Lord Denning above all for repeatedly emphasizing that contracts need Full Knowledge and Approval. In a nutshell, if something unexpected is hidden in the fine print, it's unlikely to be enforced against the sap who signed the contract.
- 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.
- A more straight example was once seen on Judge Judy involving a lawsuit in which a person listed what was supposedly two Nextel cell phones in an auction, but in the fine print said that what was being sold was only pictures of cell phone. Judy was not amused and quickly ruled in favor of the plaintiff. More can be read about it on the Awesome page for the series.
- In 1988, when Nintendo struck a deal with Ken Kutaragi of Sony to design the Super Nintendo Entertainment System sound chip, the latter snuck in a trojan horse: Sony would be given any and all CD-ROM software royalties. Nintendo, who were big on third party royalties, had missed this little detail until a few years later when they had decided to work with Sony on a CD-ROM add on. When it looked like Sony was not going to ease on the terms, Yamauchi reacted with one of his trademark outbursts, pulled out of the deal, signed a more favorable one with Philips, on the night before the CES that would have marked the official debut of the Nintendo/Sony partnership. Even though Sony and Nintendo had, one year later, rejoined for one last attempt at a joint CD-ROM console, they would depart for good to design their own system, the Playstation, and the whole affair, borne of a project started in secret by Kutaragi but now supported by the entirety of Sony, triggered one of the most seismic shifts in the gaming history.
- Certain offers, usually 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
- When EA's 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.
- 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.
- Averted with free and open source software licenses, which don't require people merely using the software to agree to anything just to use the software (use is unlimited anyway). For example, Linus Torvalds, the original developer of the Linux kernel, semi-jokingly gave owners of "sharks with frickin' laser beams" as acceptable users; contrast the iTunes EULA). Reading the license is only required for those modifying or distributing software, whose terms vary somewhat between licenses, with simpler licenses such as that of BSD and the X Window System mostly just requiring credit to be given while more complex licenses require the source code to be distributed (but only if the program is distributed at all) and/or require patent holders to license any patents that cover code they contribute.note
- 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 beneficial 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. It was 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 Roth explains, 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.
- Zeca Pagodinho once signed a contract to become spokesman to a beer brand named "Nova Schin". But later started making commercials to another brand even saying on them he was wrong on choosing the other one. 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. An example of this popped up on a cruise liner that advertised a very cheap fare, only to put in small font (as in, so small you would literally need a microscope to read it) "for the first night only." Several passengers sued, and the cruise company was found guilty of fraud.
- In the US, several judges have ruled that you cannot just put anything into the fine print and be considered legal. So you can't put, say, "must pay it all within a week or lose all your assets". There is a common sense and decency clause to all contracts. If a party violates them (as decided by a judge), not only is the contract null and void, the signee usually comes out ahead.
- In the US, many coupons have disclaimers that read "Cash Value 1/100th Of 1 Cent", or some other infinitesimal value. This goes back to the era of trading stamps, when customers would accumulate them when they purchased something and later trade them in for ostensibly free items (think Skee-Ball tickets). Starting with New York in 1904, states passed laws that force trading stamp companies to provide a cash value for the stamps; naturally, the companies set the value as low as possible. Eventually trading stamps were superseded by coupons as customer loyalty promoters, but the laws didn't distinguish between the two and the cash value requirement remained.
- In Swedish contract law, the importance of the fine print depends (among other things, like the informed consent problem for end-user licence agreements) on who is entering into the deal: contracts between two individuals or two organizations are covered by the Contract Law, while contracts between an individual and an organization are covered by the Consumer Contract Lawnote . The laws are very similar, but with one general difference running through them: the Consumer Contract Law makes far more rights and protections for the consumer when entering into a contract un-waiveable no matter what the contract says.
- "Low cost" airlines are probably the most well-known example, particularly European ones. Say an airlines advertises "Frankfurt London from 19" - basically everything in such an advertisement should (or does) come with an asterisk. "Frankfurt" can mean Hahn some 100 km away. "London" will certainly not mean Heathrow or City, but may well mean Oxoford or some other place nowhere near London. European courts have ruled more than once that such naming (frequently of the style "big city"-small hamlet airport with the big city a hundred or more kilometers away) is either illegal or should come with a disclaimer regarding the actual distance involved. Now to the price: Of course this is the cheapest one way fare they technically offer. Excluding any luggage, beverages, food and sometimes even seat reservations. Some airlines even charge extra for carry-on bags. EU courts have once again stepped in and drawn the line at unavoidable taxes and charges, which have to be included in the advertised price, but charging for printing out a boarding pass or using the wrong credit card is fair game, as long as it is clearly stated somewhere.
- This trope explains how Joe Torre resigned from being the Manager of the New York Yankees in 2007 after twelve seasons with the team.
- After several first-round losses the the American League Division series, GM Hal Steinbrenner told Torre he'd give Torre a non-negotiable one-year, performance-model-based, contract with a 5 million USD base pay. However, making each of three benchmarks would a million USD bonus to his pay:
- Help the Yankees win the American League Division Series.
- Help the Yankees win the American League Championship Series and get to the World Series, which also enabled a new contract the following year.
- Help the Yankees win the World Series.
- As his base pay would have been cut from a guaranteed 6.4 million USD each year (although this contract had the potential to make him at the time the highest-paid manager in baseball), Joe Torre turned down the contract and left the Yankees, becoming the Manager for the Los Angeles Dodgers for the next two years.
- After several first-round losses the the American League Division series, GM Hal Steinbrenner told Torre he'd give Torre a non-negotiable one-year, performance-model-based, contract with a 5 million USD base pay. However, making each of three benchmarks would a million USD bonus to his pay: