Who owns a letter?

Somewhere back in the depths of time, I learned that the recipient of a letter owns that letter – that he can destroy it, keep it, or publish it if he wants to.

Is this true? And if so, does the writer of the letter, if he kept a copy, also have the right to publish it? Can the writer stop a letter from being published by the recipient?

Does any of the above apply to email?

Sadly, none of my letters, written or received, are interesting enough to publish. I’m thinking more in terms of famous people who write/send letters.

IIRC, the sender of the letter owns the copyright, but not technically the letters themselves, only their content. So, the recipient can destroy them, but not publish them.

The recipient could also sell the letter of a famous person to a collector.

QED has it. Say Delphica and I enter into a correspondence, by snail mail, and in the vicissitudes of time I become recognized as a famous theologian, while Delphica is elected Mayor of NYC. Eventually, we both die.

Delphica’s heirs own the physical letters that I sent her (him? – I’m assuming from the “-a” that Delphica is a woman). They can sell them at auction for large sums to collectors.

My heirs have title to the contents – the copyright. Publication of my letters to Delphica must include payment to my estate or my heirs for the use of material from them. (And the reverse would hold true.)

An analogy to this might be the sort of situation where a timber company holds title to a forest that they will harvest wood from at some point in the future, but a hunting club holds the rights to use the land for hunting and fishing purposes, or I own land in Pennsylvania that a coal company holds the mineral rights to – a divided title.

I believe there are special provisions in case law for the sort of circumstance where Eve, writing a biography of Delphica, wishes to quote from my letters to her – that there’s provision that permission to use them must be granted in the absence of exceptional reason to refuse it, and without an inflated royalty.

Close, but no. If you try to publish a letter without the permission of the writer or the heirs, you are violating copyright. It was J.D. Salinger that got the ruling, in order to stop publication of some of his unpublished letters in a book. The only issue is if Delphica is quoting small portions of the letters that could come under fair use.

It’s exactly the same as owning a copy of a book. You can sell that copy but you can’t publish the contents.

Amazing! Thanks everyone for the quick and informative responses!

Of course, they have led me to another question.

Let us say, that in the scenario Polycarp outlined, we are now both deceased, and my heirs own the physical letters, while Polycarp’s estate owns the copyright.

If my heirs wish to publish, Polycarp’s heirs can refuse. Let us say that they refuse because of the content of the letters.(here’s where the scenario breaks down, because I can’t imagine Polycarp writing something terrible in a letter, but let’s pretend).

Can my heirs then decide to include the physical letters in a retrospective of my papers at a museum, where all and sundry can walk by and read the letters, carefully displayed behind plexi? Do Polycarp’s heirs have any say in this matter? Can they control or influence how the content of the letters is used as long as we’re not talking about publishing?

I am not sure, but I think displaying them in such a manner is publishing them.

Can I show my Polycarp letter to anyone? A reporter or an historian, for example. As I understand it (ie I may be way off) copyright does not extend to the information itself but to the unique form it is in. A reporter could say “I’ve seen evidence of a relationship between Polycarp and Katie Couric” but couldn’t quote from the letter where Polycarp compares her to Lucy Lawless.

Title 17, U.S. Code, Sec. 101:

Well, I’m a bit disappointed that this is not about Bill Gates having bought the rights to the M, S, X, and P. :wink: (In Dutch ‘letter’ only means that).

Walloon, that’s odd: a public performance is to my knowledge protected and the copyright owner can prohibit it. What he cannot prohibit is you showing a letter to someone else, as that is not a public performance. Are you sure there is not another provision that specifically deals with the rights of the copyright owner to performances? Otherwise I cannot see how modern composers can earn money from orchestras playing their work (I know, they don’t earn much in that manner anyway) .

TTT – copyright only applies to copies. If you have an original letter, you’re free to display it.

The phrase quoted indicates the display is not automatically a violation, but it could be depending on other factors.

TTT, U.S. Copyright law draws a distinction between performance and publication because there are different timelines of copyright protection involved for an unpublished work vs. a published work. A work must be placed by its author (or the author’s licensee) in a fixed form for the work to be considered published.

But, that is not to say that unauthorized performance of a work is not a violation of copyright. Unauthorized performance is a violation. Title 17, U.S. Code:

Note, however, that Sec. 107 deals with all the “fair use” exceptions, which include scholarly and educational use.

Thanks again for the clarification, Walloon. (are you Belgian, BTW?) I was misled by the wording of sec. 101. Interesting though, since in Dutch copyright law the public performance does constitute publication (sec. 12, 1, 1 Auteurswet). I assumed that most systems of copyright law would agree on such a basic point, but apparently not.