What Is CAN-SPAM? [FAQs]

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Corey Wainwright
Corey Wainwright



What is CAN-SPAM?

CAN-SPAM (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing) is an act that was passed in 2003.

That's right, they looped us in with pornographers.

That act is a law that establishes the rules for commercial email and commercial messages, gives recipients the right to have a business stop emailing them, and outlines the penalties incurred for those who violate the law.

The Bureau of Consumer Protection notes that CAN-SPAM doesn't just apply to bulk email. "It covers all commercial messages, which the law defines as 'any electronic mail message the primary purpose of which is the commercial advertisement or promotion of a commercial product or service,' including email that promotes content on commercial websites. The law makes no exception for business-to-business email." It does, however, exempt transactional and relationship messages.

What does this law mean, practically, for marketers and business owners? I'll lay out the rules you need to follow as an email marketer, but in short, it means that your emails need to comply in three main areas: unsubscribe, content, and sending behavior.

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First, what are the penalties for non-compliance with the CAN-SPAM Act?

For every single email that violates the CAN-SPAM Act, the FTC will fine you $16,000. So if you're caught being non-compliant for a list of, say, 10,000 ... well, you do the math. Yikes.

So now that I've sufficiently scared you, here's how to comply with CAN-SPAM rules.

Rules to Follow for CAN-SPAM Compliance

In order to be CAN-SPAM compliant, it's important your email messages follow these rules, which can be found in full over at the FTC's website.


  • Do include your valid physical postal address in every email you send out.
  • Do provide a clear and obvious way to opt out of every email you send out, and honor the unsubscribe within 10 business days.
  • Do use clear "From," "To," and "Reply to" language that accurately reflects who you are. This applies to the person or business sending the message, as well as the domain name and email address.


  • Don't sell or transfer any email addresses to another list.
  • Don't make it hard to unsubscribe from emails. You cannot 1) charge a fee 2) require a recipient to provide personally identifying information beyond an email address, or 3) make recipients take extensive steps other than simply replying to an email or visiting a single page on a website to unsubscribe themselves from your emails.
  • Don't use deceptive subject lines in your emails that misrepresent the contents of your message.

Now, I can't stress enough that I am not a lawyer, and that you should not construe the contents of this article as legal advice. The FTC website also has extensive advice on this subject to which you can refer. But, I hope this article has helped lend some clarity around CAN-SPAM if it's caused you some confusion in the past!

Image credit: barmala

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