A question about quoting external text

Generally quoting lots of text is not approved, the approved method being to quote a little and provide a link, but what about text for which we can provide no link? For example, something we’ve received by email.

Does the Dope have a policy?

Not so much, no. But bear in mind, quoting an email or something else that cannot be cited is going to be a very weak citation.

Also, there may be ownership issues quoting something like as email or other written communication. You may not have permission to quote at length. It’ll always be best practices to stick to fair use guidelines and provide a pull quote while summarizing the rest of the text.


I’ve never heard of an email or letter sent to you being protected by the sender’s copyright. Doesn’t seem correct.

First of all, I’m an engineer, not a lawyer. Some of our resident legal types may want to step in and make corrections or give further explanations as necessary.

That said, here is my understanding of it.

All that is required for copyright is that the work has to be original, and it has to be fixed in some tangible form. If someone writes a short story and e-mails it to you, that qualifies. However, if the copyright is not registered, that limits the damages that the creator can seek. Only registered copyrights can seek statutory damages and attorney fees.

But yes, the long and short of it is that an e-mail can be copyrighted just by its existence.

However, not every e-mail is subject to copyright. Someone made a short (one sentence) e-mail public, which caused some embarrassment for the sender, so they sued on copyright grounds. The courts found that the one sentence did not qualify for copyright since it did not meet the standards for an original work and was so short that even if it had, copying the entire thing would have been acceptable under fair use.

Many companies automatically send a legal notice at the bottom of their e-mails. These legal notices do not have the full force of law behind them. While the e-mail notice may say that the contents are protected by confidentiality, as I understand it, a confidentiality agreement requires you to agree to it, which you have not done (all you did was receive it, you never agreed to it).

Of course, one issue is that anyone in this country can sue anyone else, for any reason they so choose. They might not win, and in fact the suit might get tossed out almost immediately, but you still might end up needing to pay a lawyer to represent you just to get the suit tossed. So while that confidentiality notice at the bottom of the e-mail might not have the force of law behind it, the sender could still make your life difficult with it.

The copyright of the letter is the writer’s property. The physical letter is the recipient’s property. So if you send me a letter, then you later become famous, I can sell the letter, but I won’t be able to publish it without your permission.

I’m sure the same would apply to emails, but I can’t see a way to go about selling one, since it has no physical form. I guess you could forward it in exchange for money.

That’s all assuming that the letter qualifies for copyright protection, as satisfactorily outlined in engineer comp geek’s post.