Are E-Mails Copyrighted?

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Q: I’m working on a book that includes several passages from e-mail messages I’ve received—stories, poems, quotes, etc. What obligations do I have when it comes to using the e-mails? Also, is it OK to get anecdotes (relevant experiences for nonfiction article topics) from people online through chat rooms and bulletin boards?—Anonymous

A: According to our legal expert, Amy Cook, original stories, poems and quotes are all copyrighted materials, whether they exist on a piece of paper or a computer screen. If you don’t get permission from the people who hold the rights, then you’re stealing their material.

“E-mails are stored—fleetingly or permanently—on computers, so they meet the copyright law’s requirement to be ‘fixed in any tangible medium of expression,’ ” Cook says.‑“If you don’t know who the authors are and don’t think you can find out, don’t use them.”

Using text from a chat room is risky—it’s hard to determine whether comments made by someone using a screen name are truthful. You don’t know if the person on the other end of the chat is a 43-year-old woman with a background in your topic or an 11-year-old boy repeating something he heard on “Dr. Phil.”

Cook suggests trying to have people contact you privately to be interviewed. “When using a chat room or bulletin board, honesty is the best policy—say something like, ‘I’m gathering research for a book/article on X. Would anyone care to comment on this issue for inclusion in my piece?’ ” she says. “This way, responders understand that their comments may be made public, and you won’t invade their expectation of privacy.”

Brian A. Klems is the online managing editor of Writer’s Digest magazine.

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