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If someone sent me an email, can I publish it in a book?

Seattle, WA |
Filed under: Privacy law

I have emails from someone who would not be interested in having them published (into a book). Is it legal to publish them? Are they my property once they were sent?

Attorney Answers 3

Posted

Probably not. The copyright in the emails belongs to the author, which in this case is the person who sent you the emails. The fact that someone sends you an email or posts something on the Internet does not mean that they have given up their copyright rights. The classic case involves J.D. Salinger, the author of Catcher in the Rye, among other books. He sent his friends beautifully composed letters. Someone collected the letters and published them as a book. Salinger sued for copyright infringement and won. Then that person published a new book paraphrasing the emails. Salinger sued again and won again.

Now as I keep saying, every case is fact specific. It may be that under the particular facts of your case you would have the right to publish the email under some theory of law such as implied license. But based on your limited recital of facts, this does not seem likely.

This answer is not intended to be a substitute for personalized legal advice. I have presented only an overview of the legal issues. There are many nuances and some exceptions to general legal principles. Real problems are very fact based.. If you have a specific legal problem, you should consult an attorney. You can find more useful information on my law firm website resources page at www.marshallcomputer.com or you can contact me directly at gary@marshallcomputer.com or (206) 524-0655.

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Asker

Posted

What about using "snippets" of the emails? Perhaps quoting; not printing the entire body?

Gary K. Marshall

Gary K. Marshall

Posted

You may be able to claim fair use. But this is a complicated area of law that is even more fact dependent then most. Check with a copyright attorney, such as myself, first if you want to try this. Have you tried asking him? I once had two clients who put together a book of women’s comments about their ex-boyfriends, mostly cute but derogatory comments. I advised them to try to get permission (particularly since they wanted to include photographs) and to their surprise most of the ex-boyfriends were delighted to be in the book. And a minor correction from the other answer, the copyright term is life plus 70 years, not 75 years. Not that it is going to matter in this case.

John E. Whitaker

John E. Whitaker

Posted

Mr. Marshall is correct; you are asking an extremely fact sensitive question to which there is no clear right or wrong answer. You just need decide how such risk you are willing to assume.

Posted

As Mr. marshall stated, the author of the email owns the rights to the email (unless there is some highly unlikely written or implied license between you and the author giving you thoe right to publish thse works)

You say the person who sent you the emails would have no interest in publishing them. Is this no interest in publishing them, or no interest in whether or not they were published? I ask because if the author did not care whether they were published or not, then it would be highly likely that he would give you permission to publish the emails, but if he would not want them published, then you have next to zero chance of publishing them without facing serious legal issues. (Note: this continues to be true even if the author dies, as the copyrights continue for 75 years after the death of the author and are part of the author's estate, ownership of the copyright passing to his heirs.)

Finally, regardless of the copyright laws, there are many other issues that should be reveiwed by legal counsel prior to publishing.

My disclaimer is simply that Avvo already has an adequate disclaimer.

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Asker

Posted

When I say "no interest", I mean he would not want them published. Now, would it change anything if names and places are changed? Would this turn the original email into my works due to the change of text?

J Scott Scarbrough

J Scott Scarbrough

Posted

Then unless you have something in writing from him giviing you permission, you would be infringing on hs copyright, as he wrote the emails. Changing them depends on how much you change them, which would have to be so much so that the original work is no longer evident. But there are other issues in addition to copyright that I would be concerned with; Is this person famous in any way? There are reputation laws (particularly strict California and Europe) and such. There are many issues at risk here and attorney's can not give a blanket statement that it is okay without understanding everything, what the emails are about, how much would have to be changed to no longer be a copy of that authors work, etc. Most attorneys offer a first consultation free. Make an appointment and you are likely to get most if not all your answers during that free consultation.

Asker

Posted

Without getting into too many details...he's an ex, and his angry (but entertaining) emails would make a great book. He's not famous in any way.

J Scott Scarbrough

J Scott Scarbrough

Posted

The Case of the Ranting Ex's. Okay. No worries if you change names and places so he can not demonstrate that you are trying ruin his reputation, publish under a pseudonym so joint friends and family do not know you are making a fool out of him, and change each email sufficiently so it is not the same "work of art" that he has authored. It can be done, but if intent on doing it you need to dance a fine line between not only copyright laws, but defamation or claims of libel if the material is taken out of context or twisted to present him in a false light.

Asker

Posted

Ok. Thank you so much for your time Scott.

Posted

The author owns the work unless there is a contract to the contrary. While there may be case-specific facts that affect the answer to your question, generally one must seek consent before publishing the work of others.

I am an attorney in Pennsylvania but I am not currently *your* attorney. Nothing in my communication should be construed as creating an attorney/client relationship. Please contact me if you wish to retain me as your counsel.

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