Fax cover sheets (especially from law-offices) will often contain a long paragraph about what to do if you have received the document in error …‘this is privileged and confidential and if you disclose to anyone in any way we will torture you in front of your children’ … and the eMails I get from accountants, lawyers and so on will also often have much the same thing.
I’ve asked my lawyer and accountant about what it really means and how enforcible it is and they haven’t known off the tops of their heads - and at their hourly rates I’m not about to press the issue!
But what does it all mean, and how enforcible is it? No one can bind you to a contract unilaterally, so you owe no duty to Dewey, Cheatham & Howe. Could they take any action if you sent everything off to the nearest newspaper? How about if you made 1,000 copies and handed them out in the streets?
I’m sure government documents can be different, since of course they do have the power to commit you to a unilateral “contract”.
There are also some special cases in securities law - you’re an analyst, you’re waiting for your appointment with the CFO and you unintentionally overhear material inside information (“I would have heard more, your Honour, but I fell off my ladder!”) … you’re supposed to tell the CFO you heard and urge public disclosure.
But what about stuff that just embarrassing to the parties concerned, or where you just want to make the point fairly emphatically to the accidentally disclosing party that you do not want to receive 400 pages of take-over documents on your fax machine overnight?