Who owns the email?

A while back, one of my work colleagues asked a very interesting question.

“When we send out an email, who owns the copyright?  Is it the owners of the data (i.e. individual clients), or is it the owners of the email (i.e. our employer)?”

He continued to lay out the scenario: “Send it to Client 1. Employee at Client 1 leaks the contents of the email; (our company) has to then cede coypright (sic) to the report so that they can distribute it internall?” (sic)

His final comment: “Imagine if (other companies) did that: ‘You wrote this with Office 365, Microsoft Owns (sic) the copyright'”

That’s a good question.  It’s one to which I don’t have an answer.  To be honest, I don’t have the knowledge or background to be able to answer it.  (Maybe someone who understands legal procedure or copyright law can answer it better than I can; if so, please feel free to comment.)  But I do think it’s an important one, nevertheless.

Email is probably one of the least secure forms of electronic communication.  It is often said that email should be treated like postcards, where anyone and everyone who touches it can read it.  It’s something I always keep in mind whenever I send email.  I refuse to send critical data (passwords, PHI, financial data, etc.) over email.  If I do have a need to send critical data, I’ll look for a way to do it securely, whether it’s data encryption, secure channels, direct messaging (which may not entirely be secure), or even face-to-face communication.  Data security is a big deal (too big to cover in just a single article), and each news item about data breaches becomes a bigger focus (as of this article, the Facebook data scandal is one of the biggest and most recent; sadly, I do not believe that this will be the biggest, nor the last, such breach).

If someone told me that I had to answer this question (and mind you, this is my opinion; do NOT quote me or state this as fact), the original author (or any data content copyright holder) owns any copyrights.  If I sent a song lyric over email, whomever it was that wrote the lyric would own that copyright, but I would own anything that I wrote (that is, something that came from my head — intellectual property — and not from someone else).  The purpose of a copyright, after all, is to protect intellectual property.  However, given email’s open and unsecure nature, original thoughts posted to an email should probably be considered to be public domain.  (That said, if an email sender cites some data source, has he or she committed a copyright violation?  I won’t take the time to discuss that now, but that might be another topic for another time.)

Despite email’s security concerns, it is still a useful tool, and is pretty much ubiquitous throughout our daily lives.  So long as we keep in mind that it isn’t secure, and we can keep our communication habits in context, it is a technology that will likely not disappear anytime soon.

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