A Quick Note on Conspicuous Text, also known as ALL CAPS

[Quick followup: (1) Matthew Butterick, of Typography for Lawyers fame, has added a thoughtful comment that anyone reading the post should read; and (2) to be clear, nothing here is my original work or thought - it's all a convenient, collect-in-one-place paraphrase of ideas from the excellent Manual of Style for Contract Drafting and Typography for Lawyers, both of which should be on the desk of every corporate lawyer.]

Anil Dash asked about ALL CAPS Friday, and then someone in my (very fun) letterpress class at the San Francisco Center for the Book asked me a related question. So here is a quick post on the lovely subject of ALL CAPS.

A copy of the MPL with yellow text instead of ALL CAPS.

The basic question: Why do lawyers use so much ALL CAPS and what can a normal human being do about it?

Some laws require that text in a form or contract be “conspicuous” – i.e., that they be made harder to miss. The most common example of this, in the US, are requirements that disclaimers of warranty1 be conspicuous, so that consumers don’t miss them. You’ve all seen these blocks, and most of you have skipped over them. In the US, the law that requires conspicuous text for warranty disclaimers is typically a descendant of the Uniform Commercial Code (“UCC”) § 2-316.2 Practically speaking, this kind of requirement makes sense – it highlights areas that legislators have decided are particularly important and so can’t be hidden in the nooks and crannies of a document.

Unfortunately, historically, the only easy way for lawyers to make text “conspicuous” on a typewriter was ALL CAPS. Unfortunately, at some point along the way, many lawyers confused the technology (typewriters) for what was actually legally required. And so this is where we stand now – many lawyers will insist that ALL CAPS are required, when they really aren’t.

So if not ALL CAPS, what actuallyisrequired? This varies from rule to rule, unfortunately. But in the UCC, conspicuous is defined as text a reasonable person “ought to have noticed”, which includes:

“(A) a heading in capitals equal to or greater in size than the surrounding text, or in contrasting type, font, or color to the surrounding text of the same or lesser size; and

(B) language in the body of a record or display in larger type than the surrounding text, or in contrasting type, font, or color to the surrounding text of the same size, or set off from surrounding text of the same size by symbols or other marks that call attention to the language.”

(From UCC 1-201(b)(10); same text also appears in UCC 2-103(1)(b)(i).)

The Mozilla Public License, which I recently led the revision of, uses two different approaches, both supported by the UCC’s definition of conspicuous text. In our HTML version, we use text “in contrasting … color to the surrounding text of the same size” – i.e., we color it yellow. (When printed, this comes out as a box around the text.) In our plain text version, we use text “set off … by symbols .. that call attention to the language.” In other words, we use hyphens and vertical bars (|) to draw a box around the text.

So that’s the bottom line answer: in many cases (and certainly in the most common use case by American commercial lawyers), ALL CAPS isn’t required; instead, something “conspicuous” is – which could mean using symbols, colors, font size, or any number of other typographical tricks to make things both visible and easier to read.

Is This Always The Case?

Unfortunately, while most American statutes in this area appear to follow the UCC and require “conspicuous” text, defined quite broadly, this isn’t always true. An interesting list of such exceptions is in the comments to this blog post. These are exceptions; not the rule, but lawyers should be aware of them. Many of the exceptions, interestingly, are where writers of rules have included text that must be included precisely in a form or contract, and the rule-writers have INCLUDED TEXT THAT IS ALL CAPS in their draft text. That is often bad form – but it’s important to follow the rules in such cases.

Citations That Are More Authoritative Than This Blog Post

You’re saying “this is all very interesting, Luis, but I can’t give your random blog post to my lawyer next time he tells me that my Terms of Use need ALL CAPS.” Well, here are what lawyers consider the best kind of citation – a citation to printed books with page numbers, one of them even a publication of the American Bar Association.

“A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting,” Ken Adams, at 15.32-15.41.

“Typography for Lawyers,” Matthew Butterick, at 86-89.

Each of these say (often with more style and detail than I’ve said here) basically the same thing – use ALL CAPS sparingly, if at all. To get a flavor for each of them without buying the books (though I think every commercial lawyer should have both of these books on their desks) the authors have each blogged on these subjects: Adams’ blog post is here and Butterick’s is here.

So Why Do Lawyers Still Use ALL CAPS?

Because we’re risk-averse. Until judges, legislators or our clients demand that we change, we will stick with what works (or perhaps more accurately in this case, we will stick with that hasn’t yet failed).

There are the occasional signs that judges are starting to wake up to the issue: In re Bassett, 285 F.3d 882 (9th Cir. 2002) says “Lawyers who think their caps lock keys are instant “make conspicuous” buttons are deluded”; Stevenson v. TRW, Inc., 987 F.2d 288 (5th Cir. 1993) endorses use of bold or larger type rather than ALL CAPS; and  California courts have even held that ALL CAPS text in an inconspicuous location in the document may not be conspicuous even though it is in ALL CAPS. Broberg v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of America, 171 Cal. App. 4th 912, 922 (2009).

The judicial situation is helpful, but realistically, until more clients demand it, it’s not going to change. So here you go. :)

 

  1. i.e., the part where the contract says “this product I’m selling you could well be broken or unusable, and that isn’t my problem” []
  2. The UCC is a ‘model code’ – basically, states copy the UCC, edit it as they see fit, and then use that for their own commercial code. e.g., UCC 2-316, in California, becomes California Commercial Code 2316, with similar but not necessarily identical text. []