In an post on Poynter Online’s E-Media Tidbits Friday, Paul Bradshaw discusses a situation where the subject of an e-mail interview wanted to publish the full text of the exchange in a blog, but the journalist who conducted the epistolary interview objected. Bradshaw’s piece, and the comments on it, deal primarily with questions of journalistic practices and ethics, but I wonder about the legal aspects.
As a matter of long-established law the writer of a letter holds the copyright to the content (anything you write is automatically protected by copyright, though formal registration is a useful step if you ever have to defend the right.) Since copyright extends to electronic media, emails are clearly the property of the author.
But the parallel between mail on paper and email breaks down quickly. Most email software, by default, appends the original message to any response, so any sort of email exchange quickly becomes the work of two or more authors. Who owns the rights to this hybrid? If I am interviewed by email, do I need the permission of the interviewer to publish the transcript? Can I publish the answers without the questions? Can I paraphrase the questions in my own words?
If there is any case law on this subject, I haven’t seen it. Does anyone out there know if courts have weighed in on the question?