Quoting from email -- intellectual property or privacy issue?
September 4, 2006 2:42 PM   Subscribe

Can I publish (on a blog) part of an email that someone wrote to me, without asking their permission?
posted by lockse to Law & Government (28 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It's terrible netiquette and definitely a privacy issue, if not a legal one. What's the reason for not asking first?
posted by mediareport at 2:55 PM on September 4, 2006

Depends if you want to stay friends with them or not. If you don't care, go right ahead.
posted by reklaw at 2:56 PM on September 4, 2006

No. Manners makyth man.
posted by athenian at 3:00 PM on September 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'm asking because, in my carefully deliberated opinion, the matter transcends the issue of manners. So this is a question of legality.
posted by lockse at 3:07 PM on September 4, 2006

Then we need more details. What's the intellectual property issue you're concerned about?
posted by mediareport at 3:09 PM on September 4, 2006

I doubt that anyone really has any expectation of privacy when it comes to email - it is insecure after all - but the contents might still be privileged by nondisclosure agreements of intellectual property rights.

if I were you, I'd be careful if your name, the other persons name or some identifiable content was involved.
posted by krautland at 3:11 PM on September 4, 2006

I wrote a letter, the letter received a response. This person could be considered a public figure; the letter was in regards to a business that the person is responsible for. No hard information was revealed -- just this person's own attitude with regard to the issue at hand.

Would there be a limit to the amount I could quote?
posted by lockse at 3:16 PM on September 4, 2006

krautland: but the contents might still be privileged by nondisclosure agreements of intellectual property rights.

Right, that's why I'm asking...so, what's the word on this? How do I find out where the lines are?
posted by lockse at 3:18 PM on September 4, 2006

I believe, as a matter of course, that the original writer of any correspondence retains the right to publish it. So says Cecil Adams as well, but then neither I nor he are a lawyer. You could probably defend against this with a fair-use argument, depending on how much of the work you "published", but yes, the writer of the e-mail could conceivably make your life difficult.
posted by Johnny Assay at 3:22 PM on September 4, 2006

If you haven't signed anything or otherwise indicated to this person that you won't publish the contents of their correspondence with you, you are under no legal obligation to obtain their permission before publishing it.

It would still be the proper thing to do to ask, even though it's not legally necessary.

IANAL, but I've had some involvement with this kind of legal issue in the past.
posted by cerebus19 at 3:24 PM on September 4, 2006

The copyright belongs to the author. Reproducing all of the email would be a breach. Reproducing some could be a breach if the copying is "substantial" (UK law btw but I imagine similar provisions appply in the US).

Breach of privacy would depend on the content of the email. The fact that you're asking seems to suggest the content is of a private nature.
posted by Ugandan Discussions at 3:24 PM on September 4, 2006

(You must, of course, provide proper attribution.)
posted by cerebus19 at 3:25 PM on September 4, 2006

From a class I took on land use law, someone is not a "public figure" unless they are elected -- anyone else has a greater expectation of privacy. At least in California, where I took the class. But I don't know what those levels are, sorry.
posted by salvia at 3:25 PM on September 4, 2006

legally, probably not, but your chances of actually being sued are very small ... however, it would be a very rude thing to do, unless the person was threatening you in some manner
posted by pyramid termite at 3:26 PM on September 4, 2006

I should revise my previous statement: If it was an e-mail directly to you, and not to a public list, your rights are more limited. The author retains the copyright, and you can quote the e-mail under the "fair use" portion of copyright law, but not include the entire text without specific permission.
posted by cerebus19 at 3:31 PM on September 4, 2006

No hard information was revealed -- just this person's own attitude with regard to the issue at hand.

Well, it doesn't sound like there's an intellectual property issue, then. You could just summarize his attitude in your own words, maybe quoting no more than a phrase or two from the letter as evidence. Are you trying to publicize that a public figure is behaving in a callous way or something? If you can find just a slightly more informative way to ask this without naming the person, it would help. Otherwise, ask a lawyer in your state.

Is there a reason you can't simply call/email to ask for permission? As in, "Thank you for your reply. I'd like to post excerpts from your letter in a discussion at my blog. Please let me know if you have any objections." Then wait a reasonable period and post the excerpts.
posted by mediareport at 3:36 PM on September 4, 2006

Taking back my statement above -- I realized that what I was remembering was actually not a state law but a university's human subjects research protocol. So the distinction between "elected" and "appointed" public figures probably doesn't apply to your situation.
posted by salvia at 3:39 PM on September 4, 2006

Yes, you can publish the whole damn thing. No one is going to sue you for it. Not in a million trillion years.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 3:42 PM on September 4, 2006

IANAL but the law on copyright is clear. You cannot reproduce his/her e-mail in full without his/her express permission. You can quote from it or summarize it under the fair use doctrine. What are the consequences if you do publish it in full? Probably none, though s/he could DMCA your ISP to get them to yank it.
posted by TheRaven at 3:48 PM on September 4, 2006

Thanks. I'm not going to be quoting it in full - but I probably will quote from it selectively. I'm assuming fair use will apply, though to be honest that is such a massive grey hole to me...
posted by lockse at 4:09 PM on September 4, 2006

You cannot reproduce his/her e-mail in full without his/her express permission.

A slight overstatement, otherwise quoting the full text of an email in a reply would count as a copyright violation, and it doesn't.
posted by mediareport at 4:16 PM on September 4, 2006

IAAL, though this is not legal advice. I make some assumptions below about the content of the letter and your relationship to the sender; if those assumptions are wrong, then the analysis would be different.

A bunch of the above comments are missing the mark: public figure doesn't matter; trade secrets don't matter; &c. This is purely a copyright question. Yes, he retains the copyright to his letter. The real question is whether you can claim a fair use, and for that we would have to know more.

There are factors a court would analyze: quoting the entire thing hurts you; the fact that your use is probably noncommercial helps you; the fact that you're presumably quoting the letter for some sort of public interest or commentary-type purpose probably helps you; the fact that you're not transforming or changing the work in any way hurts you. Overall I suspect a court would find fair use (and this sort of thing is frequently done -- there are books of letters from companies and such). There might also be an implied license to publish based on the idea that a company that sends a letter to an adversary stating its position has no claim that that letter is private. But it would be a fact-specific inquiry; there are no bright-line rules.
posted by raf at 4:39 PM on September 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

Just as an FYI, correspondence is not protected by the Copyright Act in Canada. So if you're Canadian, you can legally publish correspondence without permission of the writer.

(IANAL, but this is what I was taught in journalism class.)
posted by solid-one-love at 5:29 PM on September 4, 2006

Yes, you absolutely can print this letter. Queries to strangers are on the record unless specified otherwise.

However! You really should identify yourself as a reporter when you do this in the future, because reporting is exactly what you're doing, whether you're a journalist by trade or not. You run the risk of getting yelled at and never spoken to again by the person you're doing this to, as well as an annoying lawsuit if they're very crazy or if this letter damages their career, reputation or family life. People, rightly or wrongly, expect for correspondence to be private. So, yeah, you're being a jerk. But this stuff happens every day.

You should ask yourself first, of course, what you'll do when this person writes you and asks you to remove it.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 6:51 PM on September 4, 2006

Oh, and I should specify that my analysis is specific to US law; other countries have other laws.
posted by raf at 8:10 PM on September 4, 2006

Is there some reason you can't just summarize or paraphrase what the person said? A reader who refused to believe your summary/paraphrase would also refuse to believe you'd quoted the e-mail accurately, so I'm not sure what you're losing. If there was a particularly striking phrase, you could surely quote that within the boundaries of fair use.
posted by languagehat at 6:19 AM on September 5, 2006

Caution is the better part of valor here. Put yourself in the other person's shoes -- would YOU want YOUR words revealed to the outside world? If not, then why on Earth would you consider doing it to someone else?

TIP: If you work with the press (mainstream media and bloggers alike), put a note in your .sig file that says something to the effect of, "This contents of this email is not for the record or attribution. But if you ask nicely, it can be." It's a little bit of CYA and establishes an electronic paper trail. Realistically, nobody reads those long ten paragraph confidentiality disclaimers at the end of emails anymore.
posted by zooropa at 6:49 AM on September 6, 2006

As far as the copyright issue goes, there are a few things to consider:

1. You probably won't get sued. In order for the author to sue you (in the U.S., anyway) they'd have to first register their copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office.

2. If the author registers their copyright AFTER the alleged infringement, and then sues, they would only be able to obtain actual damages, not statutory damages or attorneys fees, and they might also be able to get a court order for taking the email down. Actual damages would depend ont he contents of the email, but in most cases would be pretty limited.

3. You may have a fair use defense, if you quote portions of the email for purposes of commentary and criticism, and if you're not interfering with the author's potential commercial use of their email.

4. You may have the defense that there is an implied license to publish the email - for example, if the author knows you routinely publish emails you receive, or had express notice of that before sending the email, or some other circumstances that would suggest that emails sent to you are subject to publication.

5. What you really need to worry about is a DMCA takedown notice sent to your ISP. If the notice is in the proper form and sent to the proper party, your ISP may require you to take the email down. You have the right to assert that your use is not infringing, but most ISP's err on the side of caution. In this scenario, your worst case scenario is that you and your ISP disagree and they shut down your site. Best case is they stand behind you. Most likely case is they make you take down the email but leave the rest of your site up.
posted by mikewas at 6:44 AM on September 7, 2006

« Older Firefox Bookmarks Toolbar Acting Funny (but not   |   Can you recommend a great adventure game? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.