Comic book contracts

There is a view, held by some who are involved in contracts, that there should be  visual illustrations in many contracts, particularly those involving consumers or other non-specialists.

This view is aligned with a view about how universities should teach – that people learn in different ways, and the traditional focus on words and theory disadvantages those who think better in numbers or images, or who learn better when they see the practical aspects. So far, IP Draughts gets the impression that universities pay lip service to this idea; on the whole they don’t do much about it. He would like to see contract law taught through examining contracts, but this practical approach is probably too radical for leading law faculties.

Anyway, back to visual aids. IP Draughts was interested to read about an initiative in Australia, where a large engineering company called Aurecon has generated a standard employment contract in the form of a “comic book contract”. The complete contract can be found here. It appears to have been designed by a company called Creative Contracts.

Reading this contract, and looking at the pictures, several points occur to IP Draughts. First, the use of cartoon-like images is prevalent in consumer advertising in the UK, e.g. it is used by domestic gas companies. This advertising provokes a negative response in IP Draughts, based partly on the attitudes of his (non-intellectual) parents and grandparents, who were disdainful of attempts to treat them and others as children. Perhaps this says more about IP Draughts’ family values than about the merits of the use of cartoons.

Next, much (perhaps a majority) of the Aurecon “contract” is not really a set of contract terms. It describes the company’s values and processes, as well as setting out some very abbreviated contract terms. It probably wouldn’t comply with the requirement under English law that an employer must set out certain core terms in writing – typically done in a schedule to the contract – e.g. when did the period of continuous employment start. (This is relevant when calculating statutory payments for redundancy.)

IP Draughts honed in on the IP terms. Text appears above the following image (original is better quality):

The text reads as follows:

We own any intellectual property rights in things you create in the course of your employment. You help us to apply for any needed patents and to protect our intellectual property.

IP Draughts is always interested in new ways of communicating ideas. His impressions of the above examples are:

  1. Does the image increase the reader’s understanding? What is it trying to say? Looked at analytically, rather than impressionistically, it doesn’t convey much, other than someone handing to someone else a big book with the title “IP + Patents”. What does this mean, in relation to IP ownership?
  2. The accompanying text skates over the surface of the complexities of IP. It uses several terms that have legal meaning, and which may not be clear to the typical reader: intellectual property rights, things you create, course of your employment, patents, and intellectual property. IP Draughts would be interested to hear about the thought process that led to this choice of words and image, and whether it was intended to make the terms legally binding. The choice of words seems to be “legal lite” – using legal terms of art but avoiding definitions – rather than fundamentally redesigning the language to fit a simplified, non-legal approach

Similarly, there is an image linked to some text that requires the employee to “respect” the company’s confidential information. A separate image (of putting various electronic items in a cardboard box) requires the employee to “remember” that their duty of confidentiality “extends beyond the duration” of their employment.

A question that runs through IP Draughts’ mind is that there is a trade-off between simplicity and legal effectiveness, and he wonder whether the company has written down what this trade-off should be. Is the intention to focus, say, 80% on simplicity and only 20% on legal effectiveness, recognising that the company may lose employment disputes as a result, but thinking this risk is worth taking for the benefits of a simplified contract?

Contracts of this kind are experiments, and not yet part of the mainstream. IP Draughts’ view is that the drafter/designer needs to work really hard to make the meaning clear when the text is so abbreviated. Without seeing the design specification for this contract (if there is one) it is difficult to say, but IP Draughts doesn’t think this is a good template, at least when it comes to complex legal issues such as IP and confidentiality.


Filed under Contract drafting, Employment

5 responses to “Comic book contracts

    • Ingrid Slembek

      I was also going to respond regarding the fruit pickers contracts by Rob de Rooj as raised by D.C. This example of comic contracts is the one raised most frequently at IACCM event.s

      • Interesting to read the fruit-pickers’ contract. The content is very basic, e.g. your duties are to pick a minimum amount of fruit, and if you pick less, or take too many days off, you get fired. Understandably, nothing about IP or confidentiality or other “legal” issues.

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