Legal question regarding email lists and forwarding messages

Hello all,

Someone just made the comment that anything posted to an email list (such as at YahooGroups) is automatically copyrighted, and that forwarding any such messages to any person who is not a member of the list, even with full headers and attribution, is illegal. Now, if they are not using the information for monetary gain, and are not claiming the text as their own, how is this illegal?


That you were not using the information for monetary gain is irrelevant to whether you violated the author’s copyright. It may be relevant when a court assesses damages.

Because the person who writes the original message holds copyright (even without any action on his/her part). They can dictate how people make copies of that work, and forwarding that work is making a copy. Whether it’s for monetary gain is completely irrelevant to copyright.

However, forwarding the message would be a civil tort and the copyright holder would have to sue to stop you from copying it. At the same time, unless the message’s copyright was registered, the only thing the copyright holder can do is get a judge to prevent you from making any more copies (i.e., forwarding it again). That makes it unlikely the copyright holder would bother to sue, since it’d cost them too much for no monetary gain.

Further, I don’t think there’s much case law on forwarding e-mails, so there’s no hard-and-fast rule about whether you can do this or not. It’s possible that a court would rule that this is a form of fair use, leaving the copyright holder out in the cold (and he’d be an idiot to sue over this, since he can win nothing, and lose everything).

I think most examples of brief posts would count as fair use, but don’t quote me on that.

The fact that you’re not using the post for commercial gain is actually relevant to the fair use question, but I agree with the other posters that the simple defense “I wasn’t making money off it” is generally ineffective in matters of intellectual property – no matter how many Internet websites may make contrary claims.


I get that it may be a violation of the list’s policy, but I’m unclear on whether or not showing someone a piece of text is actually a crime. I also have no idea what “fair use” means in this case.
If forwarding emails posted on an email list is illegal, is it also equally illegal to forward a private email without the writer’s permission?



Now wait a second…I can understand legal aspects of copyright infringement on forwarding something from a email list, but Walloon are you saying that forwarding a private email is also illegal?

The reason I ask this is because I understand that once you send a personal/private letter the receiving person is considered to own the letter and may do whatever they wish with the letter. While the recipient would not be allowed to claim credit for the writting/ideas expressed in the letter itself but they may copy the letter and send it to others or sell the letter despite what the original writer may wish. I would think that forwarding or copying a private email would be the same as a private letter.

I would be interested in seeing any cites that state a private email is more protected than a private letter in regards to copyright law.

Xgemina, I don’t think your understanding is correct. If someone sends a personal/private letter, the reciepient owns the physical letter. However, the copyright to the text of the letter remains with the author. The reciepient is permitted to display, sell or do whatever else he or she wants with the physical letter, but not copy the letter (unless it is limited copying considered fair use). If, for instance, someone wanted to publish the letter, the publisher would have to get the permission of the author.

As Billdo said. You own the original, but you do not own the right to copy and distribute it. That’s what the word “copyright” means. Forwarding an e-mail is copying and distributing it, whether it’s to one person or a thousand.

On hindsight I see I wasn’t paying close enough attention when I was scanning through the code on copyright law. If I had been I would have noticed that the title of section 202 explains it all:
“Ownership of copyright as distinct from ownership of material object”

Obviously I had a faultly understanding. Thanks for explaining Billdo and Walloon.

I agree that any message, private email or via a message board, is copyrighted material, and I understand the difference between ownership of copyright and ownership of material object. This is pretty much the same in my legislation and probably in many others.

Still I would like to point out that the term “copy” cannot be applied to electronic messages the same way it works for physical letters. I have clearly copied a letter when there is a second piece of paper with a facsimile on it. The same goes for scanning it into an electronic file. In fact, any manifestation of the letter that is different from the original is to be considered a copy.
That’s where the problem is: What is the “original” in regard to an electronic message? The moment the sender sends the message a copy is made (maybe even before, it may have been moved around in memory or saved to disk). Every relaying server copies (and maybe even “distributes”) the message. Every time I read the message (I assume I am allowed to do that), technically I copy it (but what I copy is already the copy of a copy of a copy …).
So there’s the other thing: distribution. I am allowed to put a letter I have received into a new envelope and send this new letter to someone else. I am allowed to show a letter I have received to guests who visit my house (unless the information in that letter is subject to more stringent confidentiality rules). I may not be allowed to use this letter for advertising in order to attract more guests, whether or not I demand admission fees.

Having said all that, I would argue that forwarding an email to another person will be fair use. Considering that posting messages to a message board usually expresses the sender’s desire that many people read this message, forwarding them to even more people may be fair use (unless confidentiality …).

Others, especially lawyers, may want to contradict or elaborate on these views. I just wanted to point out that forwarding an email is probably not plainly illegal.

The author of a message has the right to control the circumstances, the forum, the context, and the time period, in which the message is viewed. If you copy and forward that message without the author’s permission, you are denying the author that right.

I should have been more exact: Of course it is not allowed to forward any such message just because it has been posted to a message board, but it may be fair use in some cases.
OTOH, I think you are straining copyright a bit: Many message boards have it in their terms and conditions that they may or may not display the message, maybe shortened or otherwise edited, for any time they see fit. Even if it’s not there explicitly, something like this may apply. Sure, this is only to say the author granted this right to the operator of the message board, not to anybody else (what about Google cache?).
As to controlling the circumstances, the forum, the context: I can let a colleague read the message while it is on my screen (although he is not a registered message board member, given it’s requiring registration), I can read it to someone on the phone (mobile phone operators digitize the sound and send it in packets, so technically a copy is being made), etc.
All I want to say is that there are some forms of fair use, and there are other cases where we would not consider it fair use. It has not yet been pointed out to me conclusively, why the line should be drawn exactly at forwarding by email.

If I buy a book I can give it to whomever I like. So if John emails me something. This email is mine. I send the ORGINAL off and keep the copy for me.

If John mails me a book, I copy it and then give the booke to Joe how is this a violation. Same principle.

If I buy a CD, copy it and sell the original or give it away where is the violation.

If John mails me a letter, I copy it and send the original on with my comments how is this different.

Shouldn’t the question be who owns the original?


That isn’t how copyright law works, Markxxx. In all those situations you described, you are violating copyright law. You have made an unauthorized copy in violation of the copyright holder’s rights and you have distributed the unauthorized copy, also in violation of those rights.

In none of the situations you describe is it fair use. It’s not fair use to make a copy in order that two people might have their own copies.