Why are copies of contracts called “counterparts”?

In Anglo-American contract terminology, a copy of a contract is known as a “counterpart.” When a contract is signed, it is customary for each party to the contract to retain a counterpart of the agreement. But why do we need this term?

In English “copy” may have two distinct meanings. The expression “he gave me a copy of his latest article” may imply me dio una fotocopia de su último artículo. But rather than referring to a photocopy, “he gave me a copy of his latest novel” probably means me dio un ejemplar de su última novela. Thus, “copy” can denote la reproducción de un documento (photocopy, facsimile, etc.) as in the first example, or the document itself, un ejemplar del documento, as in the second.

In contract law the expression “counterpart” is used to denote a copy of a contract (ejemplar de un contrato) that may be considered one of several originals of the document. Each party to a contract obviously wants his own “copy” of the agreement (in the sense of ejemplar), deemed to be an original. Clauses to that effect are often included in contracts to underscore that “This Agreement may be executed in one or more counterparts, each of which shall be an original and all of which shall constitute together the same document” or “This Contract is executed in duplicate counterparts, each of which shall have the force and effect of an original.” Counterparts are often used to facilitate contract execution when all of the parties cannot be physically present at the signing. In this case, counterparts of the contract may be signed by different parties and are then exchanged.

The concept of signing a contract in duplicate counterparts, each deemed to be an original, is often expressed in Spanish contracts as firmado por duplicado ejemplar a un sólo efecto, or with similar wording.

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