CAN-SPAM Act scope and requirements

The Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (CAN-SPAM) Act was passed in the United States in 2003.

CAN-SPAM applies only to commercial email messages and therefore exempts from its requirements messages whose primary purpose is transactional or relationship in nature.

If the primary purpose of the message is transactional or relationship in nature, the Act's sole applicable provision is to prohibit a sender from including false or misleading header information. When transactional emails include commercial offers, the Primary Purpose rule applies, in which case they may remain transactional if the email has its transactional content at the onset of the email (or before the commercial content) and if the subject line reflects the transactional nature of the email.

CAN-SPAM includes requirements in the following areas.


  • Requirement: Senders of commercial email do not have to obtain prior consent from the email recipient.
  • Tip: Sustained delivery to recipients requires prior consent. The best practice is to obtain opt-in consent.

From name

  • Requirement: The From name must identify the initiator (not necessarily the sender) of the email.
  • Tip: The general practice is to allow the recipient to unsubscribe from both those who appear in the From name and from the sender, if the two are different.

Subject line

  • Requirement: The Subject line must clearly reflect the primary purpose of the email. In particular, the Subject line should not be misleading or deceptive regarding the actual content in any way.
  • Tip: Avoid overly sensational words or words that require additional disclosures (for example, using the word Free without explaining preconditions).

Commercial notice

  • Requirement: There must be notice that the email is commercial. This is not required if the recipient provided affirmative consent (that is, took action to provide consent).
  • Tip: This is not a subject-line requirement. Notice can be provided within the body of the email.


  • Requirement: Senders must honor unsubscribe requests that are made using the promoted Internet-based opt-out mechanism included in commercial emails within 10 business days of the request.
  • Tip: Honor unsubscribe requests as quickly as possible and treat complaints from feedback loops as opt-out requests.

Unsubscribe mechanism

  • Requirement: The unsubscribe mechanism must be clearly displayed. It must also function for at least 30 calendar days after the email was sent and allow the recipient the option to unsubscribe from all commercial email from the sender. The mechanism can be either a reply email address or a link to an Internet web page. The mechanism cannot require any information other than email address and unsubscribe preferences.
  • A reply email address: Must unsubscribe the individual after the receipt of the first email request.
  • An Internet web page: Must provide the unsubscribe option on the first page visited.
  • Tip: Make the unsubscribe process as easy as possible.

Postal address

  • Requirement: There must be a valid postal address for the sender that includes the street address, post office (PO) box, or private mailbox if it is registered with the United States Postal Service.
  • Tip: This does not have to be the sender's corporate headquarters. Senders do not have to promote the use of this address for the receipt of unsubscribe requests. However, they should ensure that mail sent to this address is monitored and process unsubscribe requests received through it in the interest of best practices.

Multiple advertisers

  • Requirement: If there are two or more advertisers promoted within an email, advertisers can designate a single sender for the email. The single sender is responsible for honoring unsubscribe requests made to the designated sender and providing the inclusions required by the CAN-SPAM Act. The designated sender must appear in the From name and have its products or services promoted within the message.
  • Tip: When in doubt, treat all advertisers as a sender. When transferring unsubscribe lists between parties, use secure transmissions and encryption to protect lists from abuse.

Forward to a Friend

  • Requirement: If Forward to a Friend is included and if the initial (intended) recipient is induced to forward the email to a friend, the friend message must reflect the marketer as the sender and comply with the Act in all ways. This includes ensuring that the message is not sent to an address on the sender's (marketer's) unsubscribe list.
  • Tip: A recipient is induced if they are provided incentives (usually financial) for forwarding the email.

Sexually oriented material

  • Requirement: If the recipient has not provided prior affirmative consent, the sender of sexually oriented commercial email must include the warning Sexually Explicit: in the Subject line and ensure that if the recipient is viewing the email via a preview pane, the recipient will only see the warning and other specified information (such as the opt-out mechanism).
  • Tip: A recipient cannot see any graphics within the portion viewed in a preview pane.
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