Legal responsibilities of Technical Communicators

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Contents

Introduction

As a professional Technical Communicator, you are obliged to provide documentation that meets all applicable legal responsibilities. These may include not only liabilities specific to the country in which the documentation is being produced, but also liabilities specific to any country to which it may find its way. There may also be legal issues covering the type of product to which the documentation refers - either safety issues, or issues relating to trade embargoes and the like.

The bottom line is that if the client is sued because of misleading, incomplete or incorrect documentation, then you (as the producer of the documentation) could be liable. Although clients should advise you of any applicable laws, it helps to have at least a general awareness of the different legal requirements that an author may face.

The specific laws listed in this section are British laws (as most of my work has been in Britain). Additionally, if this Guide is being used as a textbook for the City & Guilds examination, then questions are specific to British law. However, that said, there are almost certain to be similar laws in most other countries in which you are likely to operate, and so the concepts behind these laws will still be of general use.

There are three main legal areas that a Technical Communicator may need to be aware of: copyright, product representation, and health and safety. Each of these areas are discussed in detail below. Note that laws and acts mentioned below refer to British laws. There are likely to be equivalent laws in most other countries.

Copyright

Copyright is the area with which most Technical Communicators will have at least some degree of familiarity.

Note that if a text or image is said to be copyrighted then this means that the copyright has been registered with a governing authority. This does not mean that anything that has not been 'copyrighted' is unprotected and can therefore be reproduced with impunity - copyright exists on all material (unless the copyright has been voluntarily surrendered) regardless of whether this has been registered or not.

Copyright Act 1988

Copyright is a property right; it controls how the work is reproduced (copied - hence copyright!). It protects the form, but not the ideas.

Copyright lasts from the creation date until 50 years after the creator's death, or 50 years from the creation date for computer-generated information.

Ownership

Generally, copyright of a work rests with the person who created it. However, if the work was created in the course of employment, then the person who pays for it generally owns it. Technical Communicators will normally find that their contract, or terms of employment, contains a clause indicating that everything produced by the Technical Communicator during their employment (and therefore the copyright on these works) belongs to their client or employer.

Use of copyright material

Generally, extracts may be published as long as the copyright owner (and source - e.g. journal) is mentioned. This is also allowed for research/private study, or criticism/review.

Product Representation

Statements made in sales or marketing literature may form a part of the sales contract, if the product is purchased due to expectations obtained from the literature.

Statements that give the prospective purchaser the impression that they will benefit from the purchase of the product must be true (or at least proven to be true for the average user).

Trade Descriptions Act 1972

In essence, the The Trade Descriptions Act 1972 states that a product should do what it says, and performs in the way that the buyer has been led to believe it does.

The law identifies a 'trade description' as:

  • Quantity, size or gauge;
  • Method of manufacture, production, processing, or reconditioning;
  • Composition;
  • Fitness for purpose, strength, performance, behaviour or accuracy;
  • Testing by any person;
  • Approval by any person;
  • Place or date of manufacture etc.;
  • Person by whom manufactured etc.;
  • Other history

This is a fairly broad list, much of which falls within the remit of Technical Communicators. In particular, Tehcnical Communicators should ensure that:

  • All measurements (size, tolerances, performance) are accurate;
  • The product does actually work in the way described (that is, that it is possible to carry out tasks specified in the user instructions, and that these will have the result specified in the documentation);
  • The country of manufacture is specified (by component, if necessary).

Sale of Goods Act 1893

Precursor to the Consumer Protection Act. Consumers can expect goods to be of merchantable quality

Consumer Protection Act 1987

The information is a part of the product. Part 1 concerns product liability; Part 2 covers consumer safety.

  • The producer is liable for damage caused by a defect in their product;
  • A defect can be in the production, the design or the information;
  • Information is defined as instructions, warnings and other information, inclusive of marketing literature and archive documentation, which afford a person adequate safety in respect of the product.

Product Liability (1989)

Manufacturers are liable for damages if user suffers injury or loss because of a faulty product, with no need to prove negligence. Technical documentation is considered to be a part of the product to which it refers, and is not considered a product in its own right.

Note also EC Directive on product liability, which instructs all member countries to adopt suitable product liability laws.

Producer is liable for any loss or injury caused by using the product in any way that could be reasonably assumed.

Health and Safety

  • Cannot force users to read warnings, but can make every effort to make sure the warnings are easy to understand, and placed where they are unlikely to be missed/can be found.
  • Where warnings appear on the machinery itself, it is possibly worthwhile including a picture of the machine in the user guide, identifying the placement of the warnings, and repeating them there.
  • Bear in mind that the purchaser of a product may not be the final user of the product, but it is still the responsibility of the manufacturer to make sure that all required safety information is made available to the user. (e.g. where a customer buys a tanker of hazardous chemicals that they then sell on by the barrel.) Consider providing health and safety information in reproducible form.
  • Consider providing warnings in more than one language.

Placement of warnings

  • Not sufficient to place them on the packaging, as this may be discarded.
  • Do not place in a position where they can become worn or soiled (and therefore illegible).

Health and Safety at Work Act 1974

A warning is incomplete (and therefore inadequate) if the danger is not made clear (e.g. can't just say "Do not open"; need to say "Do not open because you may be electrocuted"). Each safety warning should include an explanation to explain to people why they need to obey it.

The producer must take necessary steps to ensure that persons supplied with the product are provided with adequate information about:

  • The use for which the product is designed or tested (including tolerances/limits). It is fair to believe that the user will take notice of this.
  • Any conditions necessary to ensure that it will be safe in all circumstances as described above, and when being dismantled or disposed of,
  • Revisions of safety information about new serious risks.

The producer must provide adequate information about:

  • Inherent risks to health and safety,
  • Results of relevant tasks carried out
  • Conditions necessary to ensure that the product or substance will be safe under the circumstances above, or during disposal.

BS5304 Code of practice for safety of machinery

Identification of hazards. Can allow for some degree of common sense.

Elimination of hazards by design. Not strictly an author's job, but adequate documentation can help.

Use of safeguards.

Use of safe working practices.

EEC Machinery Directive 89/392

The manufacturer must take into account the intended use of the machinery, and other uses that could reasonably be expected.

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