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All written words aren’t covered by copyright

Authored words are covered by copyright. Correspondence is not covered by copyright. In fact, if you have letters from an old flame, you own all that correspondence, not the person who originally sent it. I left the following comment on Dave Winer’s post about Paul Bradshaw’s post titled “In the E-mail Era, Who Owns the Interview?”:

Actually, email falls under correspondence too, and as such, it’s a bit murkier than what you propose regarding copyright above. Interviews conducted by email may not be copyrighted in this sense. Old fashioned letters, for example, are the property of the recipient, not of the person who sent them. When I was studying for my English Studies MA at Illinois State University in the late 90s, we actually discussed how emails, following the format of paper memos and letters, fell under this “the contents belong to the recipient” rule. After all, correspondence doesn’t fit under any of the things which copyright is designed to protect: “Copyright, a form of intellectual property law, protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture.” from http://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-general.h…

In an interview, one person (usually the recipient) writes / asks questions, receives answers via correspondence (whether mailed, emailed, or on the phone) from the interviewee, and then takes that information, often reorganizes and edits that information, and then authors something from the combined correspondence of the two people. That’s not as clear-cut as “the person who wrote the words owns the copyright.”



I’ll add to that comment that this was all still being ironed out when I was taking this class. The legalities have changed some since then, I’m sure, and I’m no lawyer. I only bring this up to point out that not everything that a person writes is copyrighted. A grocery list isn’t copyrighted, necessarily, for example. A note on the fridge to my wife isn’t copyrighted necessarily. If I begin to assemble these things into a book which I am authoring called “Correspondence with my Wife”, even if it never gets published, then it’s crossed from correspondence into a creative work that is copyright-able. This blog is copyrighted to me, because it’s original published writing. My comment on Dave’s blog, is now part of his blog, so I have granted some of the copyright rights of that original statement to him, have I not, through my actions, and thus I have to link to and quote those words as they appear here.

If I send an email to someone, I am giving that person those words through my actions. I can slap a “this is confidential” bit at the top or bottom of the email to protect it somewhat, but letters and emails can be intercepted, used as evidence in court hearings, referenced, summarized, gossiped (he told me confidentially that x y and z happened), and quoted ad nauseum. The person broadcasting the information may be contractually bound not to share that information. If the recipient isn’t under a similar contract, then there’s really nothing legally protecting from that person telling everyone about it (this is why we have NDAs).

As I said in my comment on Winer’s blog, this is murky and not nearly as clean-cut as he seems to think. I have no answers to this kerfuffle, which is a word that I learned from Nicole Gustas; she doesn’t own the copyright to that word though, so I don’t know if I’m attributing it correctly. ;-)

Murky, indeed.

More discussion here…

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

“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.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Nicole Gustas 12/20/2009, 2:34 pm

    Alas, I do not own the word “kerfuffle,” but I wish I did! After I’d been using it for a while, I saw the New York times use it in an article about Marshmallow Fluff in Massachusetts (only the Massachusetts legislature could have a kerfuffle about Fluffernutter sandwiches). I’ve heard it on NPR and read it in several other places this year. It seems to be rising in popularity.

    According to Merriam-Webster, the term dates from 1946, and is a corruption of the Scots “carfuffle.” (Fuffle, it turns out, means “to be disheveled” in Scots. I think it’s a great word and I may have to adopt it, so I can use it in sentences like “George Clooney appears to be infuffleable.”) It’s been popular in Britain ever since. A chunk of my online social circle lives in Britain, so I imagine that’s how I learned the word. I like to think that I was just on the leading edge of an American linguistic trend.

    And now I’ve apparently granted the copyright of this comment to you, although I must cede credit for the “George Clooney appears to be infuffleable” line to Mike Rainey.

    I do have a question in all this, however – what if you email an unpublished novel or unfilmed script to an agent? I’m 98% sure you are not ceding copyright to them in that case. It does make me wonder exactly where the line is drawn, though.

    • C.K. Sample III 12/21/2009, 11:12 am

      Yes, you never cede copyright if you create a copyright-able work. But there’s the rub. The email to a publisher isn’t a copyright-able work. The manuscript itself that is attached is.