Can You Publish Letters From Other People in Your Work?

Q: I plan to write a series of prank letters to politicians, celebrities and manufacturing firms, and then publish my letters and the replies in a book of humor. Do the replies to my letters become my property to publish in my book? —Gene M.

A: Letters sent to you aren’t your property—or, at least, you don’t own the rights to the material in the letter. Our legal expert, Amy Cook, says that letters are like any other form of written expression and are copyrighted the moment they’re fixed in a tangible form.

“The letter writer owns the copyright on the letter,” Cook says. “The recipient may not use another’s copyrighted material without her permission.”
For instance, if I send you a letter bad-mouthing former “Full House” heartthrob and current “Glee” star John Stamos, you can’t print it. You can throw it away, you can read it to your friends, you can even show it to Mr. Stamos, but you can’t publish it without my consent.

If you do have interest in publishing reply letters, you can note your intentions in the letter you send, explaining that the person’s response is an implied license to publish the letter in book format. Of course, that might ruin the point of the prank, but it’ll safeguard you from a lawsuit.

“And remember,” Cook stresses, “celebrities and large companies tend to have teams of very good, very expensive lawyers at their disposal.” 

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