General Question

wundayatta's avatar

What is the copyright law with respect to emails you have sent?

Asked by wundayatta (58604points) June 10th, 2009

If you have a correspondence with someone, are the things you write to them theirs to do what they will with? Or do you still have some ownership, or is there an implied copyright? Or do you have to say it’s copyrighted when you send it in order to retain rights or prevent them from doing anything with it?

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11 Answers

DarkScribe's avatar

When you write anything you own copyright. It is automatic. If you address it to someone, then they have a right to its content, but not its form.

casheroo's avatar

I’m pretty sure they can do whatever with it. I’m recalling a wedsite with an email correspondence, that was pretty hysterical..I can’t remember the site though dammit

wundayatta's avatar

@DarkScribe Content, but not form? Can you explain?

Jeruba's avatar

The author remains the owner.

DarkScribe's avatar

@daloon Content, but not form? Can you explain?

You can discuss or write about anything that is said, but you cannot publish the “form” the exact text as your own.

In most cases with email, few would worry, but nonetheless, copyright applies.

If you read a book on water skiing, and later write a book on water skiing, even if you use information garnered from the book you read, it is ok. You cannot publish anything taken from that book verbatim though, that would be a breach of copyright. The same applies to an email. You can use the knowledge, but not the prose is another way of putting it.

You can show another person, you can tell another person, you just can’t publish it without permission. If you look at the fine print for companies like Google’s Gmail, it says that you grant permission for them to use any email you send in any way they see fit. That stops you suing them if they publish some of your mail or provide it to a third party – as they do. Without that permission, granted by you as soon as you use gmail, you could sue them.

wundayatta's avatar

@Jeruba and @DarkScribe How do you know these things? Are there any websites that might explain it?

DarkScribe's avatar

@daloon How do you know these things? Are there any websites that might explain it?

I am a journalist, it is a part of training and experience. There are all manner of web sites relating to copyright law, it depends on what country you reside in.

Most of these things are technically wrong, but as the cost to mount a lawsuit for against a person for publishing an email is so high, the chances of it actually happening unless you are a a very prominent person, are very slim. It isn’t like a conventional crime where you can just call the Police.

It is how gossip magazines survive, They have a constant backlog of lawsuits that they are fighting, but s the percentage of people able or prepared to bring suit are such a small number of the total number of people who they involve in slander or breach of copyright (photos as well as text) they don’t worry much about it. It is just an overhead, one of many.

I have observed several failed attempts at copyright lawsuits, they don’t always win. All the law allows is for you to bring suit, you still have to win.

drClaw's avatar

Unless the email is commercial in it’s nature, then it would fall under ‘fair use’ and therefore could be used freely. When I say commercial I mean artistic or dramatic works (short stories, poems, etc).

DarkScribe's avatar

@drClaw Unless the email is commercial in it’s nature, then it would fall under ‘fair use’ and therefore could be used freely.

I suggest that you examine the limitations of Fair Use a little more closely. You would hardly be reviewing someone’s email. How do consider it to be applicable to fair use exceptions? Also a work does not have to commercial to be protected, unpublished works are equally protected.

drClaw's avatar

I think commercial is the wrong word, but I know that if you and I have a correspondence via email and I publish it later that as long as the correspondence didn’t contain any poems, short stories, or drawings it would be pretty difficult for you to get me to remove it.

DarkScribe's avatar

@drClaw it would be pretty difficult for you to get me to remove it.

Difficult yes, impossible no. It doesn’t matter what it is, email, diary, a shopping list, it is copyright protected. As I noted earlier, not many people would bother, but some do.

We are often sent copies of email, and although we can discuss them and their content in detail, in print, our legal Dept., will not let us publish them verbatim – just in case.

It has just occurred to me that you might be confusing “Non-Commercial” use and non commercial content. It is often argued, incorrectly in the eyes of most judges, that if a copyright material is used non commercially that is a valid fair use. That means if the use is not for commercial gain that is is ok, but that argument usually fails except for occasionally with some photographs. Some people have mounted a successful defence when using a copyright image on a private blog etc.

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