Email: Who Owns the Copyright?

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?

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8 Responses to “Email: Who Owns the Copyright?”

  1. Fredric Alan maxwell Says:

    Steve, I put a copyright notice as a signature on every e-mail I send. This is because, at a PopTech conference, a former head of the ACLU explained that, because of one vote in a US Supreme Court case involving a telegram many decades ago, the law treats an e-mail as a postcard.

  2. C.K. Sample III Says:

    “As a matter of long-established law the writer of a letter holds the copyright to the content” is incorrect. See here: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=990DEFD71E38E033A2575BC2A9649D94669FD7CF

    There is some protection against publication of letters without the writer’s consent, but as the article notes, “The matter of copyright is not involved at all in the question.” Protection against republication of letters (and thus emails) without consent has more to do with protecting against libel and defamation than anything else.

  3. All written words aren’t covered by copyright — Sample the Web Says:

    […] I left another comment on this post, but it’s awaiting moderation as I write this. Here’s the contents of the post: […]

  4. swildstrom Says:

    @ C.K. Sample III: I should have specified U.S. law. Here’s a citation, also from the NY Times archives, on a ruling that vested the copyright to Mark Twain’s letters in the author and his heirs: http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9B01E1DB1530E233A25757C1A9639C946196D6CF

  5. C.K. Sample III Says:

    That ruling only applies to “letters of celebrated persons”; so it doesn’t really cover every letter written by every person in the U.S. Only public figures.

  6. Rusty Smith Says:

    And then what about company-owned email systems? My employer claims that it owns any email I send or receive on its email system…

    • C.K. Sample III Says:

      That functions like an NDA. Again, it has nothing to do with copyright and everything to do with an employment contract you’re engaged in as the employee of your employer.

    • swildstrom Says:

      Employers generally regard anything done on their time or on their systems as “work product” and therefore their property. Again, though, it gets complicated when the email incorporates the contributions of second or third parties.

      The law evolves by analogies, but analogies between the digital and analog worlds often don;t work very well.

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