If you’ve ever faced an end-user agreement littered with restrictive fine print or one of those legendary one-sided adhesion contacts, you’ve probably wondered: Can I change my consumer contract?
Can I make it fairer, more reasonable, even less one-sided?
Every day, consumers sign these take-it-or-leave-it agreements. Then they complain to me.
Electronics have end-user agreements that void the warranty if you so much as unscrew the back. Subscription TV agreements require that you agree to arbitration and forfeit your right to go to court. And travel — ah, travel! — please don’t get me started on the consumer-hostile contracts of carriage into which airlines force passengers.
The short answer is “yes” — you can change the contract, and get out of it. Whether the company accepts it or not is another question.
Consider what happened to Mike Arman, who recently received a notice from AT&T. The carrier says that “by continuing to use their service,” you agree that if they think you owe them any money, they can call you any time.
“Day or night,” he says. “They can text you, fax you, spam you, send a telegram or even use Pony Express.”
The exact contract says, “We may contact you by any available electronic means using any contact information available to us.”
Arman, a semiretired business development manager, has seen this kind of thing before. He knows that fighting AT&T’s efforts is futile. That’s because AT&T is holding all the cards. “He who has the gold makes the rules,” he says.
Yes, I can change my consumer contract, but …
“A consumer’s ability to renegotiate an adhesion contract with a company depends largely on that consumer’s negotiating power and the company size,” explains Paul Mitassov, a Toronto lawyer with extensive contracts experience.
But contract renegotiations are inherently difficult because they demand that you have:
- Full knowledge of the existing terms of the contract, and how these terms interact with each other.
- Sufficient legal knowledge to alter the terms without exposing yourself to unanticipated liability.
- The authority to negotiate.
- The necessary administrative support to manage the now-unique contract.
In other words, you need a law degree, a staff — and clout. Lots of clout.
“Because of the above expenses, few companies will go to the trouble of contract renegotiation unless the proposed payoff is substantial: no less than five to six figures in most cases,” says Mitassov. “For customers without thousands of dollars to spend, their usual contract options are to take it or leave it.”
To put it into everyday terms, you can’t take your iPhone end user license agreement, make a printout, mark it up and send it back to Cupertino.
Why it’s so hard to change my consumer contract
James Goepel, a corporate attorney for an internet security firm, says that as a consumer, he’s often frustrated by contracts that are unchangeable.
“Even multibillion-dollar companies struggle to get contract terms changed in many cases. And, quite frankly, there is a good reason for it. The business made a conscious decision about how to price its offerings based on the types of service it will provide, the responsiveness, features, and so forth, as well as the level of risk it is willing to absorb.”
No consumer, or even small or midsize business, generates enough revenue for the company to change its mind or its business practices, he says. Even if they wanted to, “the administrative cost of trying to track all of those changes would be astronomical.”
So what’s the fix?
- Buy from another company that offers more favorable terms, “although this typically requires paying more,” says Goepel.
- Start a competing company that offers the services under the terms you think are more attractive.
- Simply stop doing business with the company with the unfavorable terms. If you don’t like your iPhone, for example, switch to a Google Pixel.
Maybe you’re better off tearing up the contract
There’s something to be said for the “I’ll-never-do-business-with-you-again” approach. If a company tells you to take it or leave it, leave it. If you think outside the box a little, you do have options. For example, you’re not stuck with your monopoly cable provider. You can cut the cord. If you’re tired of onerous airline contracts of carriage, drive. Sick of your appliance warranty? Find one that covers you.
And never say never. I deal with large publishing conglomerates all the time, and they almost constantly push contracts in front of me that no reasonable person would sign. You know that famous clause granting the company the rights to my work “in all media, throughout the universe, in perpetuity”? Been there, seen that.
I’ve crossed out stupid clauses and sent the contract back — politely. My newspaper syndicate and my last book publisher can tell you all about that.
Guess what? They accepted many of the changes. After all, they wanted to do business with me.
Never forget, you have the power. You don’t have to do business with a company that creates an unfair contract.