Legality of Making Private Emails Public

A friend sent me a question this morning, and I honestly don’t know the answer, so I thought I’d ask here…

She states: “I have a private email from someone who is flaming
me…and I want to post it to a yahoogroup with my
reply. I don’t want to know if it is ethically okay
but I want to know do you know if it is legally okay?”

If it makes any difference, she resides in the state of Colorado.

Thanks in advance!

I recall hearing a TV News broadcast describe a US Supreme Court ruling, claiming that there is no privacy rights in e-mail.
But, everything you see on TV is wrong.


Well I could type up a document that looks like an e-mail from you. I’ve always heard though, if you send an e-mail, make sure it’s something you wouldn’t mind being posted on the company bulletin board. Seems to me what makes an e-mail “legal” is when two parties agree it was the original e-mail. Sounds like a Communist plot to me. :slight_smile:

I just had a thought for a new thread. If two (or more) people agree to a “fact” in a court of law, doesn’t that make that fact a truth in the eyes of the court? That is, as long as someone with more impressive credentials doesn’t disagree with them.

Your friend would be in the clear. Email has little to no legal protection associated with it. (The only protections I know of are indirect; While it isn’t illegal per se for me to read your ‘private’ email, the act of h4x0r1ng my way in so I could read it would be illegal. And so forth.)

However, posting an e-mail in its entirety could be construed as a copyright violation. Personal letters have copyright protections.

The good news is that since the author most likely didn’t register the copyright, the courts could only order you to stop reposting it, and the author would pay his own court costs.

The bad news is that the author has a window in which to register the copyright. She could possibly register it after it’s posted and then sue your ass off (and you’d pay the court costs).

Further, though there is no privacy rights for business e-mail (since you’re using the business’s servers), it’s a different issue when it’s a personal e-mail on a non-business server. Yahoo, for instance, would have the right to view the e-mail (since if you’re using their mail, you’re using their server), but no one else (except for law enforcement officials under a subpoena). In addition, this only involves reading the message; it’s not about publishing the message.

So it would be possible for the sender to sue you (and have a case) if you published a private message without their permission.

In my opinion it is your right to do with what is yours as you like.

If I send you a mail I intend this to be the equivalent of a letter I send to you.
Hence the minute you receive it, it is yours since it was intended to be yours by adressing it to you personally. With doing so I gave up my rights of possession of what I write = by sending my writings to you with the clear intention for it to be information coming from me destined to be an item for you to gain possession of.

What law in the US would forbid someone to do as he like with what he gained possession of? The more since in this case the ownership was completely voluntarely given to him by the one who sent the information.

Salaam. A

By this logic, novelists lose all rights to their work when they send a manuscript to a publisher. Copyright and ownership of physical media are completely separate. I own copies of books, movies and CDs but the rights I have based on ownership of the media does not include the right to publish additional copies. I can sell my physical copy, but I cannot make more copies of a copyrighted work (barring fair use exceptions, etc.).

You do not give up your copyright on an email by sending it. Period.

You mix two entrirely different things up. I’m talking about personal letters, not about professional contacts between writers and their publishers.
If you are a professional writer you make sure you to possess the rights on what you produce and do that before you send anything of your work to no matter who. Furthermore you have the stipulations in your contract(s) with your publisher(s) that cover this issue.
This is a rough sketch of a very different situation. Some others, like for example collegues in the same studyfield or interest sending eachother some of their work before publishing - for different reasons - rely on other standands/agreements. (And in many cases your back is already covered by the fact alone of your reputation in a certain studyfield which on its own is enough to prevent others to act as if your work is theirs.)

There is no way you can compare such situations with me sending you a personal letter and you gaining posession of this writing by the mere fact that I adressed it to you personally. I did not cover my copyright on what I wrote. Merely by sending it to you personally I make my intention clear to give that right up.

Salaam. A

Too true, but considering ‘fair use’ of a directly addressed email for non-commercial purposes, well, you take that one to court. :wink:

The case most on point is the Salinger case. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that while physical letters belonged to the recipient, the content of the letters belonged to the writer. While there hasn’t been a case regarding email yet and Salinger isn’t binding outside the Second Circuit, undoubtedly the courts would look to Salinger in making their rulings.


You should not post legal advice when you’re not from the country in question, don’t know the laws, and when someone has already explained why you are wrong.

As a general rule, sound legal advice (which is what the poster was asking for) does not begin with "In my opinion".    
Here's one site ( that covers some of the issues, although they seem more concerned with email sent to proprieters of web sites and discussion groups.     It does contain the somewhat alarming: 

Whether this is applicable to email seems to hinge on the use of the word “tangible”. But it appears that a particularly malevolent flamer could, in fact, register their email after the fact, and sue your ass off. Your friend would be wise to take advantage of the “fair-use” provision of the copyright law and excerpt the more vile parts for rebuttal purposes.

There is an interesting distinction made in law between a piece of correspondence and its contents.

Say I received a letter from J.D. Salinger some years ago. That letter itself is valuable as a collector’s item. And it is my possession – by mailing it to me, he made me a gift of the physical object that is the letter.

But the contents are his writing, and remain his possession under copyright law – just because I have a letter from him does not give me the right to publish its contents against his will.

Fair use says that I can quote from it – accurately – in the course of accomplishing a different goal than the one of “publishing a letter by Salinger for profit” – for example, if I am refuting a theory advanced by a literary critic, and can prove that Salinger’s intent was different than that suggested by the critic through quoting his letter to me.

A novel, letter or other work is copyrighted the moment the writer puts it on paper. Everything in a contract between a writer and publisher involves the writer giving up the automatic copyrights in return for money. Without a contract explicitly assigning rights to the publisher to make copies, all rights would remain with the writer. Whether you’re a professional or not, you can mail, email, post on the Internet or drop a million copies of your writing out of an airplane and not give up your rights.

That couldn’t be more wrong.

  1. Since when are you a moderator? If you are not: Since when do you feel that you can command me about no matter what I choose to post on this website?

As a general rule, sound legal advice (which is what the poster was asking for) does not begin with “In my opinion”.

  1. That is why I say “In my opinion” and why I asked about the laws in the USA regarding the issue = I follow the OP in asking to provide for the specific information regarding the US laws.

How do you manage to read that as if I am saying that I give the OP “sound legal advice”? You do understand English, do you? My English is not ** that** bad that it is impossible to read what I write, or is it?
Since in my opinion this is absolutely not the case , may I ask you to read my posts before commenting on it. Especially since you clearly think - for some reason that completely escapes me - that you are in a position to command me to stop posting replies and additional questions in a thread made by an other member.

Salaam. A

A novel, letter or other work is copyrighted the moment the writer puts it on paper.[/QUTOE]

This is interesting since that is not automatically the case in some other nations.
How is this covered by US law?

I would question the implied intention of the writer to automatically want to raise money fro:m his/her publications. I can imagine situations where this is not the case. And you contradict this statement with the following

So it is possible to give up your rights or not, or to give them up only partially.

If you say this is the law in the USA. I don’t know, that is why I asked about it.

Maybe in the USA. Not so in some other countries, which makes questioning things like this interesting.
I would like to see myself win a case in the USA when someone published one of my mails without my consent. I think that would be a fun to do, just to test the system you say exists.
Salaam. A

Where is the contradiction? A writer has complete copyright rights in his work as soon as it hits the paper. The writer can choose to give up those rights either by explicitly putting the work in the public domain or making a contract with someone else (e.g. a publisher) to give up some or all of the copyright rights, probably in exchange for something.

Yes, a writer may not necessarily want to raise money, but that line of argument is a straw man. I suppose I should have been more specific. For instance, when I’ve published in peer reviewed scientific journals, I didn’t get paid for my writing. I did have to sign a contract assigning copyright to the publisher, and in exchange I got prestige and a big fat plump on my resume instead of cash. The end result is the same, and the publisher would not have published my work without a contract giving them adequate copyright rights to do so.

It is possible to give up copyrights either entirely or partially. For instance, some magazines will publish a writers work without being assigned complete copyrights to it. In these cases, the author has given the publisher enough copyright to publish the work, but the author has retained for himself the right to publish elsewhere later. In other cases, the publisher may require complete rights, in which the author no longer has the right to publish the work elsewhere.

And yes, I’m referring to US law. The OP lists a US location so that’s how I replied. IANAL and have no knowledge of copyright in other countries, but I was under the impression that various international agreements had standardized this type of copyright protection in most of the world but it may be the case that copyright is not automatic everywhere.

US law is clear, especially after the Salinger case: you cannot reprint a letter without the writer’s permission. It is a copyright violation.

Actually, the US is one of the few nations where copyright registration is needed. Most other are full signatories of the Berne Convention, which does not require registration.

Here is a list of countries that are signatories to the Berne Convention. Note that if they are signatories, copyright does not require any registration.

Yes it is – but you need to explicitly give that permission. Most professional publishers send out contracts spelling out what rights they are buying so there’s no question. There are some exceptions, such as letters to the editor, where there is a reasonable expectation on the part of the sender that the letter will be published. However, a private e-mail does not fall under this.

Note that the author can make as many copies as he wants, but still retains copyright unless he specifically says the work is in the public domain. Copyright is, after all the right to make copies, and if the author has the copyright, then he can make copies all he wants.

If you want to look through US copyright law, it’s at But you would win any case if you registered the copyright and cared to pursue it (though, more likely, the other guy will offer to settle out of court, since he has no way to win).

I hear there’s a court case that has something to do with that…

:o I’d forgotten about that, but it must have been percolating in the dim recesses of the musty file cabinets of my mind when I came up with the Salinger example! Thanks, Otto!! :slight_smile:

Reality Chuck, thank you for answering my question which was not about the Berne convention but about specific regulations regarding copyrights and how to install and protect them in the USA itself as US citizen.

The end result is that you got your publication, which was the aim for you writing the article about your research. Hence the primary goals of your work was gaining profit, hence the demands of the publisher were in the same line as when you went elswhere to get the writing printed/published.

I for one am sure that I never gave away full rights ever and I don’t plan to do it in the future on anything that is important to me, no matter where the (first) publication is done.

I think I am going to do the test and ask now for the coyright on the mail I plan to send to a friend in the USA. I can make it a bit more substantial and make it a letter instead. And to make it really something US Only, I can have it written in the US and sent in the US.
Although I can write very lively descriptions of daily trivialities and hence make of my letters real works of literary art, I have some serious doubts about the positive tone of the answer on my copyright application.
Salaam. A