Are emails under copyright?

What happens to emails that you sent, if someone wants to publish them? Does it matter if you are identifying the writer of the email vs leaving them anonymous?

Just realized I don’t know the answer to this for regular snail mail either.

Under current American law, everything you write is automatically copyright as soon as it is fixed in tangible form. At what instant that happens for an email is fuzzy to me, but certainly it is copyright in your name when you hit send and it goes out to the world. Same for snail mail, Facebook, laundry lists, mash notes, and ransom demands.

Asserting your rights if you sent it anonymously would be more difficult, obviously, but there are many ways to trace an email and many ways to prove you composed such an email at such a time.

Copyright is not the same as registering that copyright. Nobody can publish your email without your permission* but without registration you are limited in what damages you can claim.

*You permit the Straight Dope to publish your posts with a nonexclusive license as part of the operating terms here, e.g.

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Unless this Wiki article isn’t the correct cite or I’m quoting an irrelevant section, it’s not everything.

Then again, “literary works” consists of a lot:
According to several lawyers, the answer to the OP is fuzzy.

The lawyers all agree with me, as in “Under the Copyright Act any author of a work is immediately vested with ownership to the copyright of a work upon creation.”

The fuzziness is in the answer to a different question: can I publish someone else’s copyright work? The answer to that is, yes, sometimes, and no, often. That’s what allows me to legally quote one of the lawyers’ words:

“Fair use” is an extremely fuzzy legal concept, to be sure. Nobody is ever truly sure whether a use is fair use until a court rules on it, and virtually none of the trillions of bits of quoting ever get that far. However, what case law exists pretty much unanimously states that printing the letters of people who have not given permission will get your book pulled from bookstores.

I am aware that was written by one of the authors. I was quoting a wiki article that specifically quotes from section 102 of the Act which defines what counts as a “work” and I commented that “everything” may not be covered, but conceded in the very same post that “literary works” consists of a lot, maybe enough to cover “everything” (but maybe not).

Thanks all. Let me add more meat the the bone. Let’s say I wanted to publish an email exchange between me and another person as part of an autobiographical work.

Let’s also say that I identify them by name and relation.

or Let’s say alternatively that I identify them only by a relationship to me.

or Let’s say alternatively that I don’t ID at all except as “family member.”

Are these different considerations?

Also Would there be a content limit over which it’s not fair use anymore, if it even is in the first place?

So, not everything. What are “ideas, procedures and methods”? If someone emails an idea for an invention, is that not protected? Or is that protected as it’s “distinguished from a description, explanation or illustration”? What kind of idea, procedure or method wouldn’t be distinguished from one or more of those?

It doesn’t matter at all how you identify them. They own their own words.

What constitutes fair use is determined by context. There is no formula or set of rules that can determine it ahead of time.

Copyright is complicated, but not this complicated. Every original expression you set down is copyright by you as soon as it is fixed. “Original” is the operative phrase. No, some things are not considered original. Read some of the many threads on copyright we’ve had to get some understanding of what is not copyrightable, a fairly limited pool compared to what is. (Example: an idea may not be copyrightable. But the original expression of the words used in the email damn well is.)

So here’s the deal. All your emails are copyrightable (unless you’re just sending a meme created by somebody else and something else equally minimal.) All the emails sent to drad dog are copyrightable. And all your posts are original enough to be copyright. So are my posts. And drad dog’s posts. These aren’t controversial statements. As a rule of thumb, you can assume that everything is copyright unless proven otherwise. That’s how limited the exceptions are.

How does copyright work if I deliver an impromptu speech or do an ad-libbed comedy routine or extemporize some poetry in a public venue? Let’s say there are no cameras or other recording devices present. Does this mean my words were not fixed in a tangible form and are therefore not copyrighted even though I created the work and delivered it publicly?

If my work wasn’t copyrighted, what happens if somebody was so inspired that they went home and wrote down from memory, word for word, what I said? By being the person who first wrote it down and fixed it in a tangible form, do they now have copyright on it?

No and yes, AFAIK. I don’t know of any cases like this that made to court. Like most extreme hypotheticals about the fringes of law, there isn’t much to say. However, the plain wording of the law is clear that works must be “fixed, tangible form” so I’m assuming that you’re SOL in enforcing your spoken words.

For example, the Lincoln-Douglas Debates were done extemporaneously, but newspapers had stenographers there to take them down. Then the papers published those reports* in the papers they sold, and AFAIK, neither Lincoln or Douglas ever got a penny of the profits from those sales.

*Papers favoring each speaker edited their reports to make their favored speaker come out better (mostly by leaving out parts). That’s why historians have a hard time getting an actual text of what was said.

I don’t think so. From Wikipedia:

This is called ‘Threshold of originality’. A minimal degree of creativity would rule out quite a lot, if not a majority, of emails. A message to exapno.mapcase(a) saying: “Wanna grab a beer after work?” would hardly show a minimal degree of creativity. This then negates that just by writing something, anything, and sending it, i.e. creating a permanent record, would make that writing automatically copyrighted.

Different copyright law. You had to formally register the copyright.

Also, as candidates, both Lincoln and Douglas had a strong interest in having their words printed in newspapers.

These have been answered above but just to emphasize—

  1. Originality means only that the work hasn’t been copied from somewhere else

  2. Creativity is a very low threshold —usually expresses a minimum or a modicum of creativity

  3. A fixation can be a script or a contemporaneous recording, but there must be a fixation for copyright protection. You can just put your phone voice recorder on and there’s your fixation.

  4. Identification or credit doesn’t make a difference.

  5. Fair use often allows republication for certain purposes. But as explained it’s hard to say in advance what’s fair. We do know that if those e-mail messages are newsworthy then it’s fair use for a newspaper to publish them. Same with the text of a major political address.

The story, all names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this post are fictitious. No identification with actual persons (living or deceased), places, buildings, and products is intended or should be inferred. No person or entity associated with this post received payment or anything of value, or entered into any agreement, in connection with the depiction of tobacco products. No animals were harmed in the making of this post.

I understand this is facetious but just for the record none of it has anything to do with copyright law.

It does, however, meet the criterion of creativity. A boilerplate disclaimer could not. One of the most amazing things about language is that virtually every sentence people say or write is truly original, never seen in exactly those words ever before. A minor proportion of language, however, consists of social smoothing words - hi, how are you, this, sure, u up. Those by themselves are not copyrightable. A series of emails, as drad dog referred to, is unlikely to *not *contain original content. Same is true for an entire thread.

The sentences that Charlie Tan left out of his quote are crucial.

Original emails are not under any definition “sweat of the brow” compilations of facts. Such a standard can’t be used to deny copyright to the “sufficiently original elements.”

It was also a debate for the US presidential election. There was a public interest in this, recognized by the participants in having done it. I don’t think they could complain. Someone correct me if I’m wrong.