Who owns an email message?

Disclaimer: I am not an attorney and I did not consult an attorney about this blog post, so this is not legal advice. I may even be wrong, in which case you should leave a comment with your opinion.

I read an interesting article about whether or not you can publish the interview questions yourself if you are interviewed via email and I started wondering. If you have a conversation via email, can you publish that conversation in a public place? Turns out, you probably can't publish it without the other person's permission. The other person holds the copyright to the pieces they wrote and you need their permission to publish it. Or forward it on.

(Note that you can quote small pieces of their email. How much is up for debate.)

You can't even publish emails you found on public forums without permission. From NetM@nners:

e-mail that is posted to a group of people, on a mailing list
or Newsgroup does not make the e-mail available for reposting, copying,
or any other use – not without the express and written consent of the

So be careful how you use someone's email and words. It's about more than just attributing it correctly.

Also be careful what you write in email. Even though they aren't supposed to publish your mail, it's obviously really easy to publish and forward emails!

What do you think? Do you think email and copyright law will be an issue? Will people continue to ignore copyright law when it comes to email? Will copyright law change? Or will a few public cases of misappropriate email usages make everyone aware of copyright law?

17 Replies to “Who owns an email message?”

  1. it is my understanding that copyright is used to restrict republishing of something that is already in public to create an artificial scarcity to create artificial value .. as far as i can tell, nobody is making money from conversing through emails and hence no incentive to sue when they are published without consent.
    If the participant of the conversation was under an assumption the conversation were to remain private. The issue maybe taking a private conversation public and not copyright violations

  2. That may be why copyright was created. But it does cover everything you write, including email messages. So you could take someone to court for publishing your email messages. Whether or not you could find an attorney to do that for you for a price you could afford is another issue.

  3. @mtz: I disagree.Neither you have to make money with a work nor the work has to have some (artificial) value to apply copyright to it.
    For example if I publish an article at my peronal weblog than nobody makes money with the article and still I own the copyright and can decide what is allowed and what is not. If I don’t give permission copying and redistributio is prohibited. Of course this shows some irony. We all know that this happens all the time. Some webservices create archives of webpages, search engines copy my article to their cache, your browser creates a copy in his cache if you visit my blog, etc.
    That’s the irony if you look at modern technology and our antiquated copyright law.
    This leads me to my personal answer to Stormys question (IANAL):
    “What do you think? Do you think email and copyright law will be an issue? Will people continue to ignore copyright law when it comes to email? Will copyright law change? Or will a few public cases of misappropriate email usages make everyone aware of copyright law?”
    This is not a matter of email but a general matter of “modern technology vs copyright law”. What will happen? I don’t know. But I assume people, technology (e.g. your browser) and companies (e.g. the search engines) will continue to ignore it. The sane thing would be to update copyright law. Today where almost every act is a copy the only logical step is to change copyright law to always allow non-commercial verbatim copies.

  4. will there be lawsuits over this? Yes. No doubt. Especially if it involves someone using a corporate email address or employer owned computer system/smart phone and the corporate entity can be held liable in some way as a deep pocket target for punitive damages.
    Will the general perception as to what is okay to do with email change in response to lawsuits? No. Has lawsuits over music and movie redistribution really changed public perception over what’s ethically okay to do with those copyright works? What’s going to happen is that HR will require additional training for employees with regard to email copyright liability.
    Will copyright law be changed specifically to be better aligned with public perception over email and forum postings? No. There isn’t the financial interest to do the necessary political lobbying to see copyright re-crafted for email specifically.

  5. This might vary from country to country but here in Poland the law is pretty expressive about you owning all the pieces of the conversation that you receive. This means that if there was no former civil agreement between the parties (such as an NDA) then both parties have full rights to all of the conversation and either party can decide to publish without contacting the other.

  6. the key word here is publish ..what does “publish” mean?
    …if you publish your thoughts on a web page or on paper, then you automatically get copyrights and you have a right to dictate how your thoughts can be redistributed further
    if i write my thoughts on a private journal for my private reading at my old age, if somebody take it without my permission and post them online, can i sue the person for copyright violations? ..
    what if i wrote a love letter to a girl across the street for her private consumption and she decides to post it online ..can i sue her for copyright violations?
    to me, it seem copyright come into effect after i publish my thoughts ie after i have committed my thoughts to the public
    when it comes to email ..if i write to a person with an understanding that that person will take my thoughts public then i will have copyrights to my thoughts because they are going to be published ..if i was sharing my thoughts with my friend in private for his private consumption ..then him taking them public is a violation of not copyright, but my trust
    if thoughts arent published, they shouldnt automatically be copyrighted

  7. I agree with mtz that copyright is a tool for creating artificial scarcity.
    Because copyright involves government enforcement, I think it’s also about externalizing cost.
    I suspect that, just as Haliburton, Blackwater, et al wouldn’t go to war (or even exist) without the governments of the world, neither would IP enforcement happen– these things are just too expensive to pay for with one’s own money.
    “Government– shifting costs from the rich to the poor since …”

  8. Here in Brazil a big corporation decided to post on a webside the full content of the interviews made with them. Newspapers like to publish only interesting parts, so the corporation started publishing the whole thing to serve as “their” version. Journalists have been complaining about copyright issues, but AFAIK no law suit until now.
    By the way, more than half of the share of this corporation is hold by the Brazilian State. Journalists here are much more critical about the government etc. than about e.g. private business.

  9. [legal citation needed]. Since when can you copyright a conversation? If you could copyright a conversation, bash.org would be one walking copyright violation.

  10. “to me, it seem copyright come into effect after i publish my thoughts ie after i have committed my thoughts to the public”
    Sorry, I have to disagree again.
    Copyright comes into affect if you copy that’s why we call it “Copyright” and not “Publishersright”
    If we follow your discription than what would happen if I write a program only for my friend? Would I have no copyright over my program? Can he do what he wants? Even publish under any terms he like? If copyright only comes into effect after publishing would my friend be the copyright holder since he was the person who publish the work?
    I would answer all questions with: No!
    Of course it may happen that some country have some special law for communication. Like someone said about Poland. But if not normal copyright come into affect directly after I created a work which is more than a few simple words/sentences.

  11. In most versions of European law, very little of the above applies. Breach of copyright (which exists from the moment of creation) can only be remedied by application of a loss.
    Usually that loss will be a financial loss, e.g. to an author expecting to publish for income. Public figures may sue if they perceive that they have suffered a reputational loss, although they only tend to do so when their less fortunate ejaculations are publicised – some recent cases are encouraging: “The tort of defamation protects those whose reputations have been unlawfully injured. It affords little or no protection to those who have, or deserve to have, no reputation deserving of legal protection.” (Lord Bingham of Cornhill in Grobbelaar vs Newsgroup Newspapers Ltd, also quoted in Supreme Court Justice Keane, Beverly Cooper-Flynn vs RTE Television and Others).
    You hold the copyright to any speech or writing, and may include another party’s contribution (e.g. email questions) as fair use context to the interpretation of your own creation. Anyone has the civil right to court proceedings at any time for any real or imagined cause, but will only succeed if there is a demonstrable loss.
    Of course you throw all civil rights out immediately if a) you have formed a contract with the other party, b) the other party has reasonable expectation of privacy, c) there is a social convention that is going to come back and bite you on the arse the next time a journalist is interested in your opinion.

  12. I believe, although i have never checked the legality of this issue, that email is treated the same as physical mail, and the recipient owns anything he is sent, and can therefore do whatever he wishes with it, unless there is a contract between the two parties stating otherwise.

  13. Welcome to standard copyright law (do not forget that I’m not a lawyer and this isn’t legal advice).
    The standard here is not “feel free to use it wherever it fits” or even “feel free to use it if it’s fair” (although fair use is a statutory right), but “ask for permission first of all”.
    The question about copyright on email messages is more complicated, since quoting and commenting might be considered fair uses in some contexts.
    No doubt that copyright should change (to adapt copyright to creativity and not creativity to copyright), but it is not sure it won’t change for worse (Anti-Conterfeiting Trade Agreement).

  14. I had to comment since your post was really interesting, but I was wondering if the new case law that will bring Twitter, Facebook, Myspace into the 21 century is going to happen anytime soon. How will these new technologies fit into our current system and how can they be controlled across cyberspace?

  15. I recently received email correspondence in reply to one I generated. I subsequently published the correspondence on a public website. I got an irate email from a lawyer for a third party stating that the emails sent me by the other person were covered by copyright laws. How so? It was open communication, I had no agreement with this person or any prior interaction. He didn’t ask me to keep the emails private nor did I ask him to. In fact, the lawyer made it sound like I was some kind of criminal. I had no idea email was covered under these laws. I’ll bet the average person doesn’t know it either. In fact, the person with whom I was emailing was actually quite rude to me so if anyone has a case, I’d think it would be I.

  16. I might add that the person with whom I corresponded obviously shared my email, so doesn’t that make him liable to the same laws?

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