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Blackmail is the act of threatening to reveal substantially true information about a person to the public, a family member, or associates unless a demand is met. This information is usually of an embarrassing, socially damaging, and/or incriminating nature. As the information is substantially true, the act of revealing the information may not be criminal in its own right nor amount to a civil law defamation; it is the making of demands in exchange for withholding the information that is often considered a crime. English Law creates a much broader definition of blackmail, covering any unwarranted demands with menaces, whether involving revealing information or not. However, from a libertarian perspective, blackmail is not always considered a crime [1][2]. Some libertarians point out that it is licit to gossip about someone else's secret, to threaten to publicly reveal such information, and to ask that person for money, but it is illegal to combine the threat with the request for money, which raises the question, "Why do two rights make a wrong?"[3]

Blackmail is similar to extortion. The difference is that extortion involves an underlying, independent criminal act, while blackmail does not.


The word is variously derived from the word for tribute (in modern terms, protection racket) paid by English and Scottish border dwellers to Border Reivers in return for immunity from raids and other harassment. This tribute was paid in goods or labour (reditus nigri, or "blackmail"); the opposite is blanche firmes or reditus albi, or "white rent" (denoting payment by silver). Alternatively, Mckay derives it from two Scottish Gaelic words blathaich pronounced (the th silent) bl-aich (to protect) and mal (tribute, payment). He notes that the practice was common in the Highlands of Scotland as well as the Borders.[4]

English law

Under section21(1) of the Theft Act 1968 of English law, a person commits the offence:

if, with a view to gain for himself or another or with intent to cause loss to another, he makes any unwarranted demand with menaces; and for this purpose a demand with menaces is unwarranted unless the person making it does so in the belief:
(a) that he has reasonable grounds for making the demand; and
(b) that the use of the menaces is a proper means of reinforcing the demand.

The Act uses the word "menaces", which is considered wider in scope than "threat" and involves a warning of any consequences known to be considered unpleasant by the intended victim. This covers the spectrum from actual or threatened violence to the victim or others, through damage to property, to the disclosure of information.

Pretexts for blackmail have included the threat to reveal adultery or criminal acts. But whatever the nature of the menace, it must be direct. Any vague threat to cause "something bad" to happen to some other person, except when certain demands are met, are not applicable under the law.

Taking hostile action directly does not constitute blackmail, regardless of the legality of the action. For instance, telling a man's wife that he has committed adultery is legal, even if the man would rather pay money than have his wife learn of his adultery. Blackmail consists of making demands in exchange for not taking the action.

United States law

Template:Usc states, "Whoever, under a threat of informing, or as a consideration for not informing, against any violation of any law of the United States, demands or receives any money or other valuable thing, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both."

Lawful means

Debt collectors have been accused of blackmail, but those pursuing legal debts are generally able to justify their threats of repossession because, even though it may be unpleasant to the victim, this is a legitimate use of civil law remedies. However, there are limits: many jurisdictions do not allow a "claim of right" defence to blackmail. In other words, one cannot use blackmail to collect even a valid debt.

By contrast, those chasing illegal (and thus unenforceable) debts who back up their demands with the threat of bodily injury cannot avail themselves of the same defence. There will also be liability even though the debts are legally owed if the menaces are of a criminal nature, for instance of an assault or more serious violence or criminal damage.

The maximum sentence under the terms of the Act is 14 years imprisonment;[5] this reflects the severity of the offence, which can destroy a person's reputation, personal life and livelihood.

If the elements of blackmail are not made out and the defendant has acquired a vehicle, a charge under s12 Act 1968 may be preferred; see TWOC.

See also


  • Allen, Michael. Textbook on Criminal Law. Oxford University Press: Oxford. (2005) ISBN 0-19-927918-7.
  • Criminal Law Revision Committee. 8th Report. Theft and Related Offences. Cmnd. 2977
  • Criminal Law Revision Committee. 9th Report. by Zaps georgio
  • Griew, Edward. Theft Acts 1968 & 1978, Sweet & Maxwell: London. ISBN 0-421-19960-1
  • Ormerod, David. Smith and Hogan Criminal Law, LexisNexis: London. (2005) ISBN 0-406-97730-5
  • Smith, J. C. Law of Theft, LexisNexis: London. (1997) ISBN 0-406-89545-7
  1. Block, Walter, “Blackmail as a Victimless Crime,” with Robert McGee, Bracton Law Journal, Vol. 31, pp. 24-28 (1999)
  2. Block, Walter, “Blackmailing for Mutual Good: A Reply to Russell Hardin,” Vermont Law Review, Vol. 24, No. 1, pp. 121-141 (1999)
  3. Walter Block, N. Stephan Kinsella and Hans-Hermann Hoppe (Jul., 2000), The Second Paradox of Blackmail, 10, Business Ethics Quarterly, pp. 593–622,
  4. Charles Mckay, Dictionary of Lowland Scots, 1888 (
  5. s.21 Theft Act 1968 (c. 60)

External links

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