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Signed, Sealed, Delivered and Ignored: Isn’t breaking embargoes a crime?

A matter of the law, as much as honor

by: - Last updated on: May 26th, 2020

Another launch, another broken embargo.

No, this time we are not going to talk about who broke an embargo, and why. We are not even going to take the line that those who follow the embargo lose out on traffic because of those who break it. We are not even going to get into the whole “my word is my bond” and “my signature is a matter of honor” angle. Yes, those points are all valid. But we have talked of them before.

embargoes

To little or no effect, sadly. Witness the all-round trend of broken embargoes.

So, we are simply going to highlight a simple fact:

Breaking an embargo is illegal. In essence, a crime.

Does that sound like a bit too much? Well, we are not lawyers out here, to be honest. But judging from the documentation that brands give us in the name of embargoes, the embargoed document definitely seems like a legal document. It sometimes contains details of the penalties that could be imposed if the embargo is broken and also specifies the courts in which any disputes over a broken embargo will be decided. There are generally authorized signatures from the brand the media person accepting the embargo. No, it is not always done on legally stamped paper, but some of the legal folk we have spoken to say that there is enough there for legal action to be taken if either party wishes to do so.

And that brings us to the main point of this article: after stating so many terms and conditions, and outlining penalties and jurisdictions, why don’t brands ever seem to actually take any action when these legal documents are violated?

We do not know the reasons officially. Some brand executives say that “following up legally is not worth the hassle” and given the tendency of the legal system to move slowly, we can understand this approach. A lot also depends on the “status” and “standing” of the person or organization that has flouted the embargo. If it is a well-known one, brands understandably do not want to get embroiled in a battle. “It turns into a s**tfight on Twitter with all their supporters cursing the brand,” one executive told us. Fair point again.

While we can understand the brands’ hesitation in getting into legal battles, the fact is that this hesitation is actually leading to more embargoes being broken.

There’s a very cynical saying: if you cannot implement the rules, don’t make them. In the latter case, you will have a disorderly society, but in the former case, you will have a criminal one, with no means to punish it, because hey, no one follows the rules anyway. A great example of this was Napoleon’s attempts to place an embargo on European nations from trading with the British. He did issue the orders but did not have the naval strength to back them up. As a result, the orders were flouted again and again. And some historians feel that this contributed to the ultimate defeat of Napoleon as nations found out that they could get away with disobeying him.

And that pretty much is what is happening with product embargoes. Initially, an embargo being broken was considered shocking. Now, it being honored is being considered naive. Such is the state of matters in India that now some executives even mutter: “Just sign it. It is a formality” when they hand us the embargo documents. Small wonder that many just shrug it off. “At the most, they won’t invite us for a few launches, or won’t send us one or two products, but sooner or later, they come back to us. They need the coverage,” a person who covers tech told us.

In fact, breaking an embargo has even become a cold, cold science in some quarters – the parties breaking the embargo figure out whether the loss of brand attention will be worth the additional traffic the “exclusive” will get them. The fact that there could be legal consequences does not even come into the picture.

What is the solution? We do not really know. But we are at a stage where a legal agreement is being willfully violated. And nothing is happening to those who do so. The issue is not just of some people gaining or losing traffic, or of someone breaking their word, but of people breaking the law pure and simple. Whether they like it or not, by not taking action, brands are encouraging criminal activity. Their call, of course. But sooner or later, contempt for one law will translate into contempt for another. And that leads to chaos, albeit in the long run (which is why perhaps not too many are worried about it now).

Evidently, breaking embargoes is more common in India and some emerging markets rather than in the West, where brands are known to come down very hard on those who go back on embargo agreements – perhaps the speedier working legal system help. But that’s another story.

We obviously would not like the tech media and brands to be involved in non-stop legal wrangles. But then the current scenario where embargoes seem to exist for some, and not for others, is deeply flawed and frankly unjust. No, we are not saying “off with their heads” for those who break embargoes or pots of gold for those who adhere to them. We are just requesting something that is a basic right:

Equality. And a level playing field.

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